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.
Kelvin Long, 29, a Navajo leader from Flagstaff, Ariz., follows James to the mike. He is one of the few volunteers who have traveled to Washington for the vigil, and says he is here out of solidarity and in recognition that the Arctic refuge is sacred. "It's a place where you can still drink out of the rivers -- good, clean water," he begins. "So tell Congress it's not okay, tell them no.
"Come to our little table, our humble little table. Come take a stand with us, fight the big fight with us. . . . After you go into the museum and learn about native culture, come here and find out what's going on with native people right now."
Then Long breaks into song about the Navajo "red path" and walking that path in beauty, over the beeping of a garbage truck. James sits on a white Igloo cooler, humming along while stapling protest handouts.
"Today's a little bit slow," Long acknowledges later. A security guard lounging on a park bench, smoking a cigarette, waved people toward the table. One tourist from Florida, 71-year-old Barbara Gerber, took a pamphlet and ranted at the Bush administration. "They can't stand it that there might be a place that hasn't been drilled yet," she fumed.
Others say, "Good luck on that," and every couple of hours a person might offer a dollar along with: "I'm with you a hundred percent. One hundred percent." An Alaskan family offers to call their state legislators, wink-wink, and James gets the joke. Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski are among the staunchest supporters of drilling in the refuge.
By 3:30 p.m., the donation vase contains $25. It clearly won't fly in another Gwich'in from the Arctic, but will reimburse Long for the McDonald's chicken sandwiches he bought for their lunch. One visitor, smiling, flashed a Sacagawea dollar before plunking it in.
The biggest crowds tend to come in the evening, says Long, reclining in a lawn chair. On most days, they hold the vigil till 6 p.m., just after the NMAI closes and a steady flow of tourists shuffle out. "I definitely wish more people would stop by," he notes. But Long, with kind eyes and a calm bearing, says he understands. "A lot of people in the museum are on a schedule."
At one point, museum volunteer Donna Brandes wanders by. She explains her native lineage, chats a while. Long informs her of the "Don't Drill, Storm Capitol Hill!" rally planned for today, which organizers from the Arctic Refuge Action coalition hope will attract tens of thousands of people.
"So, you think this will pay off," says Brandes, speaking of the pamphlets, of the native drums, of James making business calls on a park bench. Long is quiet. "Nothing stops this administration," Brandes says.
James gives another go at the microphone. "It's charged by solar panels," she reminds passersby, because that is how the Gwich'in live. But her words meet static as the battery powering the sound system loses its juice. Overcast sky. "Solar energy is clean energy. We need to learn how to use less oil ."
James pauses; her voice is no longer amplified. "I think I have to recharge batteries, so stay put and I'll be back!" And so people milled around, as the vigil drummed on.