Clarification to This Article
A Sept. 20 Style article said that Gwich'in elder Sarah James spent nearly two decades fighting proposed oil drilling in her Alaskan homeland. James, however, was also among a group of Gwich'in leaders who signed a contract in 1984 with a company to conduct exploratory drilling for oil on their land. That exploratory drilling was unsuccessful and the tribe, including James, later changed its stance to oppose oil drilling on its land.

Alaska Natives Offer a Herd Of Reasons to Block Oil Drilling

Gwich'in elder Sarah James holds a vigil against arctic refuge oil drilling.
Gwich'in elder Sarah James holds a vigil against arctic refuge oil drilling. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Vanessa de la Torre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Solar-powered loudspeakers on a cloudy afternoon is about all the defense Sarah James can muster these days against the threat of government, oil companies and what she calls "cultural genocide" if they have their way.

A protest banner sways in the wind, gently imploring museum-goers, businesspeople, anyone hustling to the Capitol, to slow down for a moment and "Save Gwich'in Way of Life." The words are thickly markered in black and red; drooping toward them is a turquoise flower with a sad face. "Our culture is not for sale to balance national budget," James wrote in small bold letters.

As a Gwich'in elder, James has spent nearly two decades fighting off proposed oil drilling in her Alaskan homeland. Now comes her toughest battle yet: Congress is set to pass a budget bill that includes a provision allowing for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some environmental groups argue that a limited oil supply in the Arctic's coastal plains won't ease U.S. dependence on foreign oil, or prices at the gas pump post-Katrina, and that development would damage one of the Earth's last untouched lands.

The Gwich'in (pronounced GOO-chin), a nation of 8,000 Native Americans who subsist on roaming caribou in the North Slope, see the prospect of drilling as a sure sign of their own demise.

On this particular afternoon, the Gwich'in protest was in its third week (out of six) in a small park opposite the entrance of the National Museum of the American Indian, some days to little notice.

"Gwich'in?" muses a middle-aged woman, squinting at the banner from Independence Avenue. "I don't know what that is." She decides not to find out. Later, a dapper man, Bogdan Wojciechowski, strolls to the modest Gwich'in table and observes for a moment. "Jay! Come over here so you can learn something."

"No thank you, Dad, no thank you," replies the grade-schooler. (However, a caribou bone ultimately intrigues him.)

James, 61, of Arctic Village, has been trying to inform the public of her native land since 1988, when proposed refuge drilling first threatened the Porcupine caribou herd and the Gwich'in way of life. Eight battles and no losses later, she says, "We must be doing something right." The closest bout came in 1995, when Congress passed a bill that allowed drilling; President Clinton vetoed it after pressure from environmentalists.

The environmental types return in the ninth showdown, says James, and "they're doing the fight as we are. But their interest is recreation, scenic, protecting animals. Us, it's our life."

The protest allows James to preach about her homeland, Vadzaih googii vi dehk'it gwanlii . "It means 'Sacred Place Where Life Begins' . . . It's not a thing of the past," she says. "It's alive, it's not in a book only." She sits on a metal folding chair, tapping a native drum, her right knee bouncing in rhythm.

"We have to live there for thousands of years . . . so we want to keep it that way. The Gwich'in people are a caribou people. It's our food, tools, clothing. It's our shelter. We have a song called 'The Caribou Skin Hut Dance.' "

A man with two kids passes the table that has a photo album, buckskin jacket, a pair of ceremonial gloves with beaver fur and beaded flowers. A blond girl lingers; she gets tugged toward the museum.

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