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Gwich’in Nation and Arctic policies

June 25, 2019

In spring quarter 2019, the World Affairs Council of Seattle hosted a roundtable discussion with Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwic’hin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, in collaboration with the International Policy Institute Arctic initiative. The event focused on recent initiatives concerning the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and climate change.

Indigenous people, particularly those in the north, are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change. This roundtable discussion examined the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on the Gwich’in, one of the most northern peoples in North America, and what the Gwich’in are doing to redirect the policy dialogue in new and more culturally relevant directions. The speaker, Chief Tizya-Tramm, was sworn into office in January of this year. At 31 years of age, he is one of the youngest chiefs ever elected in Canada.

Chief Tizya-Tramm is currently dedicating his efforts to two key issues: the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or Iizhiik Gwats’an Gwand’aii Good’lit (the Sacred Place Where Life Begins), and climate change as a national emergency.

In March 2019, Chief Tizya-Tramm and other Indigenous leaders from Canada and Alaska testified to a U.S. Congressional subcommittee on the impact of oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the people. Chief Tizya-Tramm said that drilling would amount to cultural genocide of the entire Gwich’in nation. “If you drill in this sacred place, it will destroy the caribou, and therefore destroy the Gwich’in.”[1] (For a copy of Tizya-Tramm’s complete statement, see the House Committee on Natural Resources.) The Gwich’in are providing an important voice and perspective in national policies related to oil and gas development. At this point, they have the strong support of the Government of Canada and are working to sway the current administration’s approach to the Arctic Refuge in the United States.

In May 2019, Chief Tizya-Tramm declared a climate change state of emergency, stressing the importance of an Arctic-centered perspective. “And from here we hope to create an Indigenous climate accord, whether it be pan-Arctic or right across the Arctic circle, but it should start with the Arctic,” he said.[2] Yeendoo Diinehdoo Ji’heezrit Nits’oo Ts’o’ Nan He’aa Declaration (After Our Time, How Will the World Be?) recognizes the role of traditional Indigenous knowledge in confronting climate change. The declaration calls for the respect for traditional knowledge and science in mobilizing efforts to prevent further warming. It instructs, “Now we must carry our traditional values and principles taught by our traditions and elders from the past to the future in a way in which they may be realized in contemporary ways.” The declaration also led to the first Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit held in early June in Alaska.

Chief Tizya-Tramm is the nephew of the late Chief Joe Linklater and a member of the IPI Arctic initiative community having travelled to the UW to participate in a workshop on the founding of the Arctic Council in 2015. A short film with Chief Linklater, The Arctic Council at Twenty: A Permanent Participant Perspective, can be found on the Arctic and International Relations Video Series site.

Old Crow is a fly-in community in the Yukon Territory located about 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Old Crow has a population of about 300 people. According to the Gwich’in Department of Cultural Heritage, the Gwich’in Nation is comprised of 15 communities spread out across Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories with a combined population of about 6,000 people. Many of the communities are on the migration path of the Porcupine Caribou herd. Caribou (or vahdzaii) play a key role in the culture, economy and health of the communities. The Gwich’in Council International was founded in 1999 to have a seat on the Arctic Council. It is one of six Permanent Participants (Indigenous organizations) on the Council.

The roundtable was moderated by Nadine Fabbi, managing director of the Canadian Studies Center, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and co-lead of the IPI Arctic initiative in the School. The roundtable included over 40 members of the Seattle business community, representatives from non-profit organizations and UW faculty and students. It was hosted by Stoel Rives LLP at their downtown offices on 24 April 2019. Jackie Miller, president and CEO of the World Affairs Council, provided opening remarks.

[1] See CBC News (2019, March 26), “We are caribou people”: Gwich’in leaders in Washington to push for ANWR protection, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/gwichin-washington-anwr-congress-1.5072215.

[2] See H. Avery (2019, May 21), “Old Crow, Yukon, declares climate change state of emergency,” CBC News, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/old-crow-climate-change-emergency-1.5144010.

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