This conversation is part of the series "Weather Reports: The Climate of Now." The featured speaker for this second installment was Gwich’in activist Bernadette Demientieff.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, discussed why sacred land protection matters to indigenous communities. In this video, learn how her community in Alaska is standing strong to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—Coastal Plain from becoming an oil and gas reserve. “Our identity is non-negotiable,” she says. “We will never sell our culture and our traditional lifestyle for any amount of money.”
Respondent questioning was provided by Eric Descheeni, a Diné environmentalist and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. This event took place on September 27, 2021.
Sponsored by: Harvard Divinity School, The Constellation Project, The Center for the Study of World Religions, Religion and Public Life at HDS, Theasophie Teas, and the Planetary Health Alliance.
About this event series: "Weather Reports: The Climate of Now" is a ten-week series of online conversations with poets, writers, public servants, theologians, biologists, scholars, and activists who are engaged in the spiritual reckoning and awakening surrounding climate collapse, sacred land protection, and planetary health. Environmentalist, author, and HDS Writer-in-Residence Terry Tempest Williams will lead conversations concerning our response to climate chaos: How might we recast this a time of meaning rather than despair? How do arts and activism combine to let us see possibility instead of pessimism? Where do we find the strength to fully face all that is breaking our hearts?
SPEAKER 1: Harvard Divinity School.
SPEAKER 2: Weather Reports: The Climate of Now. The Climate of Sacred Land Protection. September 27, 2021.
[SOUNDS OF TEA POURING CEREMONY]
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Good evening. Welcome to Weather Reports: The Climate of Now. My name is Terry Tempest Williams, writer-in-residence at the Harvard Divinity School. And on behalf of the Center for the Study of World Religions, Religion and Public Life, and the Planetary Health Alliance, in partnership with the Constellation Project, we're so happy you're with us. We've just witnessed a tea pouring with tea practitioner, Brian Kirbis of Theasophie, a meditation on medicinal plants as liaisons between the inner and outer landscapes, in this instance, in Tibet. You can learn more about the teas that Brian is brewing at the Planetary Health Alliance website. Just click on the Constellation Project, where you can also engage in additional conversations with fellow audience members around the world.
What we want you to know is, this series of conversations is an experiment, organic and evolving, as each of us confronts the climate of now with the gifts that are ours. We are uncertain. We're unnerving. This is a liminal space, a reckoning and awakening at once. Our minds seem as changeable as the weather. At least, mine do. As we ask the question, how shall we live, we do it alone, we do it together, and I believe we do it most powerfully in community. Tea is the eye of the storm.
We acknowledge the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett people, the original inhabitants of what is now called Boston and Cambridge. The Harvard Divinity School and the Native American program here pay respect to the people of the Massachusett tribe, past and present, and honor the land itself, which remains sacred to the Massachusett people. Indigenous lands across every continent continue to be prayed over and prayed upon. Tonight, we're focusing on sacred land protection with two extraordinary indigenous leaders, Bernadette Demientieff, Gwich'in, at Fort Yukon, Alaska, and Eric Descheenie, Diné, in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Last week, we acknowledged fire with filmmaker Lucy Walker. It was a firestorm of information, fast and furious, discussing complexity and complicity surrounding fire. Recognizing the attribution of climate chaos and human choices to live in landscapes that burn, with a federal public policy that has suppressed fires for decades privileging human needs over the need of land help, creating the perfect storm out of control, choking the whole of the American West, where now over 10 million acres of federal lands have burned between 2020 in 2021.
Tonight, we'll be acknowledging a very different landscape the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska, home and sacred ground to the Gwich'in people. They recognize the 8.9 million acres of wild lands as home also to 42 species of, fish 37 land mammals, including caribou, grizzly, and wolves, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species, along a myriad of Arctic plants whose growing season is accelerated with the burst of Spring through the Summer months of [INAUDIBLE] light with permafrost below, now melting due to warming temperatures. It's a varied terrain from tundra, transitioning to taiga, to boreal forests of Black Spruce, to the Alpine peaks that witness the stillness of Autumn, and the penetrating darkness through Winter illuminated by the Aurora Borealis.
This is in stark contrast to former Senator Frank Murkowski's perception of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2002. No one can forget when he stood before a Senate debate on the Refuge in 2013. This, he said, holding up a black piece of cardboard on the Senate floor, is what "Anwar" coastal plain looks like for nine months of the year. That was a visual lie and a political one that continues to be perpetuated. The coastal plain is held between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean, where the vista is vast and the curvature of the Earth is visible. The Gwich'in people know this land as the sacred place where life begins, the site of the ancestral birthing grounds of the porcupine caribou herd that migrates here each spring after traversing the tundra for thousands of miles.
"We are caribou people," says Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, founded in 1988, who's with us tonight. She's a fierce warrior on behalf of her home ground. She is a mother with five children and protector of the Arctic Refuge threatened by the rapacious appetites of the fossil fuel industry and the politicians in their pockets. This land battle has been raging for decades, fought by Native people and their allies. Bernadette was honored this month with the Sierra Club's highest honor, Changemaker Award for 2021. They wrote, "The Gwich'in Steering Committee is largely responsible for convincing every major US Bank to pledge not to fund projects that drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Refuge, making this a day one issue for President Biden." Which it was. And on June 1, 2021, the Biden administration suspended the oil and gas leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the Trump administration auctioned off, the right to drill in the coastal plain just two weeks before President-elect Biden's inauguration.
The Gwich'in Steering Committee's voice is being heard and supported by environmental groups, from the Alaska Wilderness League to the Sierra Club, to the Wilderness Society, conservationists who are working to decolonise conservation practices that for far too long removed people from the wilderness instead of recognizing indigenous communities as a vital and integral force in relationship to and stewards of the land and its creatures. "We are caribou people," says Bernadette Demientieff. "We carry a piece of the caribou in our heart, and the caribou carry a piece of us in their heart."
Let's watch this short clip, shared with us by Whitney Clapper in Patagonia, that introduces Bernadette, her work, her people in place, and sets this story in the Arctic Refuge about why sacred land protection matters to the cultural identity and survival of Gwich'in people.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF (ON VIDEO): The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred lands to the Gwich'in, known to my people as lizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, "A Sacred Place Where Life Begins." For over 40,000 years, we migrated with the porcupine caribou herd. All our songs, all our stories, all our dances, are directed to them. We are caribou people. We carry a piece of the caribou in our heart, and the caribou carry a piece of us in their heart. Oil and gas activities on the coastal plain is a direct attack on the Gwich'in way of life and our human rights.
So the most important part is the calving grounds, up here right on the coast, and that's where they want to drill. For over 30 years, they've been trying to open the Arctic Refuge for oil and gas development in the calving grounds of the porcupine caribou herd. The Gwich'in Steering Committee was founded in 1988 by the elders and chiefs of the Gwich'in nation. This is our traditional chief, Trimble Gilbert, and our mission is to protect the porcupine caribou herd from oil and gas development. We're taking a stand, and we're taking back our home, so [INAUDIBLE] ready for the fight because we're not going to give up.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Welcome, Bernadette. Hello. It's so good to see you.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Hey.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Hi. Welcome. It's so great to see you. What's the weather like where you are? Are you in Fort Yukon?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: I'm in Fairbanks, ancestral homelands to the lower Tanana Dena people. [SPEAKING IN GWICH'IN LANGUAGE] I just introduced myself in my language. I want to say thank you for having me. Yeah, just it's an honor.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: It's an honor to have you. I've heard about you for so many years. We have so many mutual friends, Whitney Clapper, among them, Sarah James [? Princess, ?] and it's really an honor to have you here. And I have so much respect for the way in which you are waging this fight, and it is a fight.
Bernadette, you wrote in an opinion piece that appeared in The Hill on November 27, 2020 last year regarding the Trump administration's move to open up oil and gas leasing on the coastal plain, and in this one paragraph you wrote, "In the midst of this global pandemic, instead of focusing on how they can be supportive of indigenous communities, the Trump administration continues to disrespect and disregard sacred land to our people." Then you say, "This rush to develop is dismissing and ignoring our voices and is in violation of our right to free, prior, and informed consent. It will have a devastating impact on the land and animals of the refuge. As indigenous people, we are spiritually and culturally connected to the land, the water, and the animals. Any harm to them is harm to the Gwich'in." Can you talk about this notion of consent and sacred land protection?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Absolutely. So this fight didn't start 30 years ago or 40 years ago. We've always protected the calving grounds. It's very sacred to us. In our language it's called, lizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, "A Sacred Place Where Life Begins." And for over 40,000 years, we migrated alongside the caribou. If you look at the migratory route and the communities, they're nearly identical. We have a leadership up here that is just dependent on oil, and there's more to Alaska than oil. We have people moving up here. They're out voting us. They're making decisions about our future without involving us.
And our elders in 1988, that was the first gathering that was held in over 150 years, and they gathered because of the threat to the calving ground. And they only gave us three directions. One is to go out and tell the world we are here, do this work in a good way, and do not compromise our position. Now that do this work in a good way, that's a very simple sentence, but it's not always easy when you're up against dishonesty and misleading statements from your own elected leadership. And so they can say whatever they want, and people believe them. I had to travel literally down to the States to make some corrections that we're not an oil state. We are an Alaskan Native state, and myself, I was born into a corporation. They don't have treaties appear the way they have, and we say lower 48.
And so before Bill Clinton, we were under corporations, and they had the rights, I guess, they had that. But now, our tribes have voting rights that are federally recognized. We have over 227, I believe, in Alaska, and something that a lot of people don't know is that this is not a Gwich'in versus Inupiaq issue. This is a tribe versus corporation issue, and these Native corporations are just corporations like any other one, but they just have brown people running them, and they don't value--
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: What would it look like in this corporation and in the oil companies, as well, and, for that matter, the United States government? What does consent look like in sacred land protection?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Consent would be to involve all the state, everybody that's going to be impacted. And they left out a lot of people during the public comment. They only allowed for Yukon, Arctic Village, and [? Vinikai. ?] Now they left out 10 other villages, Gwich'in villages, on top of some of the Inupiaq communities and Athabaskan that depend on this herd. We're not the only ones that depend on the herd. We may be spiritually culturally connected to them, but they depend on them for food security, and we're moving into food insecurity right now. There is no fish this year. People didn't get fish. The moose season just ended yesterday, and a lot of people didn't get that, and that's very concerning because our land is our store. We can't afford to be going to the store and buying meat, and we can't, quite frankly, live off store-bought meat. I mean, it makes us not healthy I like to say.
When I travel, when I come home, I thought it was in my head at first, but my husband would always make me some traditional food, and I'd feel my strength coming back, and it wasn't in my head. I actually realized that it was, we're used to it. We're seasonal hunters. And right now--
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: What are you doing with this climate collapse in the Arctic? Because you talk about how the health of the land is the Gwich'in health, the health of the animal. So go the animals, so go the Gwich'in. This interconnected interrelatedness. So what kinds of effects are you seeing right now on the land and in your community as a result of climate?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Well, the Gwich'in Steering Committee represents 14 communities, and that's Canada and Alaska. We're seeing erosion. There's 33 coastal communities that are eroding into the ocean. There's no protection on land nor ice. We had thousands of dead fish in our lakes and our rivers, dead birds literally falling from the sky. I know how ticks are now, but they're affecting our animals, our moose and our rabbits now. And I just came back from the Yukon River, and even that is eroding. I grew up seeing camps all amongst the river, and everybody's camps have eroded. They're not there anymore. And so there's just a lot of changes that are very concerning.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: You've been really open, Bernadette, with your own personal grief. The grief you're talking about now, I can feel it in my own community adjacent to Indian lands in the American Southwest with fire and drought. I was thinking of Scott Momaday, the Kiowa writer who said this, "The events of one's life take place. How often have I used this expression, and how often have I stopped to think about what it means? Events do indeed take place. They have meaning in relationship to things around them." How do you embrace both personal grief and collective grief, the grief of the land, the grief of the community? And do you have practices that help you stay in place as climate takes place?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: I have to stay strong in prayer. I have to give it all to Creator, because it's really hard to-- just leave it-- it's really hard to-- The assault on our land is an assault on us, and it's been happening for a long time. My son was just murdered in November of 2019, and I try to stay busy, but I'm still dealing with that. And the hurt that I felt when I saw our animals sick is nearly the same as my hurt when I lost my son. I feel like I'm stuck in 2019. I miss him. I don't know how to live without him. He's a big part of the reason why I was able to travel a lot is because he watched his brother and sister. Now I'm watching his little boy who is three years old, and he is never going to be able to know his dad. He was a wonderful dad for somebody his age. He was a really, really good dad. I was very proud of him.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I'm so sorry, Bernadette. I'm so sorry for your loss.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: The assault is on both men and women, indigenous men and women. There has been over 18 people missing in Alaska in the past year, I believe, and there's nobody except for us looking for them. No police, no FBI, no nobody's coming to help, except for our people. And it doesn't make me feel very good. This is our homeland. This is our home, and you're making us feel like we're outsiders in our own homelands.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: There's been so much discussion about white women and the attention that is being brought, and I'm so glad that this discussion of missing indigenous women is coming to the fore, and as you say, Black people and brown people, Native people. Because you're right. It is not right, and it underscores the invisibility of Native people, I think, in this country.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: I think we have a lot to learn from each other, and I learn something every day, even from younger people. I don't pretend to know everything, but I do know that we are in trouble. I do know that we are ground zero for climate change, and I know that what happens up here will happen down there, and we're not prepared. I don't want my children to be struggling to survive, or my grandchildren to be struggling to survive, because I failed to use my voice. And that's one of the reasons why I won't give up.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: When you talk a lot about the sacred, how do you define it? How do you see it? How do you respond to it?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Sacred is something a part of you spiritually. This place, lizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, is so sacred to the Gwich'in that we do not separate there. And they want to bring in 90,000-pound vehicles into our sacred land and blow 60,000 tons of forest into the ground, with a 52% chance of running over polar bears and smaller animals, and it just makes you feel not important. This is just like us going to and bulldozing somebody's church. That's what this means to us. Even during times of food shortage and starvation, we still never separate there.
This is where the caribou give birth. They are the last land mammals on the planet that travel this distance. They will go up there where they will have up to 40,000 calves in just a two-week period, and that's amazing. But there is nowhere else for them to go. The Brooks Range, there's predators. This place is such a flat area that they can see when predators are coming, Mosquitoes and the bugs can kill a newborn calf, so the wind from the ocean, it helps with that. And they've been going there for thousands of years. Creator didn't only make this Earth for human beings. He made it for all creation.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: So when you hear the stories that are being told by the oil companies when you hear the stories of someone like Murkowski, Frank Murkowski's father, hold up a piece of white cardboard and say, this is what the Arctic looks like nine months of the year, what is the relationship to stories and the sacred? How have you been nurtured on stories by your elders passed down through your ancestors? And I wonder what we're missing as white people in terms of the story that we're telling ourselves.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Well, first off, they have a platform to say whatever they want, whether it's true or not, but the truth to the fact is this is called a refuge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It does not say whether or not it's going to be set aside for oil. This is a refuge for the animals since they opened up the rest of Alaska. And when I hear Don Young, or Ted Stevens, Murkowski, devalue this special place, it hurts. It hurts because they've never come to talk to our people. They've never tried to consult with us. They make decisions about our future, and they don't involve us, and they think everything is about money. We can't eat money. We can't eat oil.
This is our survival, and we didn't go looking for a fight. They came here. They wanted to open this area up. And [INAUDIBLE] grandma, Sarah [? Avil, ?] is the first elder that called upon the Gwich'in nation to gather in 1988, and our mission is to protect the caribou. And our creation story tells us that there is a time we were able to communicate with them, and that we made a vow to each other that we would always take care of each other, so over 40,000 years, we migrated alongside them. And now, this day, I never thought the day would come, but it's here, and a lot of the things that our elders told us back in 1992, I never thought would happen. I don't know how they know, but I see it happening. And the rest that's supposed to come, it's scary. I don't know if it will happen in my time, but we have to come together, indigenous and non-indigenous people.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: What does that look like, Bernadette? What makes a good ally? How do we come together on this issue, for example, with the refuge?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Learn. Educate yourself that this is a human rights issue. This is a food security issue. This is a spiritual issue. We are interconnected. It is all interconnected, and they want to make it about one thing, but it's not. This is our way of life. This is our identity, and our identity is not up for negotiation. Our culture is not for sale. We should not have to destroy what little we have left so that we can send oil to people overseas. Oh, go ahead.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I was just going to say, I thought it was so interesting Subhankar Banerjee, whom I'm sure you know, the photographer who's been working with Native people in Gwich'in for a long time, he was talking about the importance of decolonizing Western conservation, and he was actually quite critical of the initiative 30x30, 30% of the world protected in 30 years. What he was saying is, that conservation has to come of age in respect of Native people and indigenous communities. I thought it was fascinating that Scientific American this month, the Board of Editors, really took the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to task, saying that they should commit returning some of the protected lands to Native communities.
And that in relationship to David Treuer, his article this Summer or I guess it was last Fall, in The Atlantic, saying that we need to return the national parks to the tribes. How do you feel about that? Do you think that the Arctic Refuge should be returned to the Gwich'in people and to the other Native people, the corporations, that you're talking about? What would that look like?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: So the land don't belong to us. We're caretakers of the land. That doesn't mean destroying it. It means to take care of it.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: So what is that in your jurisdiction, then, outside of the United States government?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Well, I don't know how our land ended up to be federal land, and I'm still trying to figure that one out. But we all migrated, all the tribes in Alaska, so just because there is a community that's in this area, they should not have the only say in what happens to the rest of the tribes. We should not have the mindset of our colonizers.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I appreciate--
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Yeah. We should not think like that. People say, oh, we're closer, they're the second closest. That doesn't matter. What matters is that you will be taking our food security away, you will be taking our identity away, you will be taking our spiritual land away, and you will be doing it for money. I like money. I mean, I really like money, but not if it's going to negatively impact my people or our future generations. It's not that important to me.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: So what would be a way in which to honor the kinship that you feel with the caribou herd, and not have the oil and gas companies' fossil fuel privilege money over that which is sacred? How do we shift that balance of power?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Well, we need to start getting off fossil fuels. Yeah, I mean, there's more to Alaska than oil. It's frustrating when I hear people, oh, oil state. We are not an oil state just because our elected leadership depend on oil and want to help their oil buddies out. We are not an oil state. Many of the 227 tribes all live off the land, and right now we are going into food insecurity. And our elected leadership, nowhere to be seen. When there's a voting, they put on their kuspuks, and they put on their Native clothing to get the Native vote, but we've had enough.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: The women of Bears Ears have been working together in terms of sacred land protection with Bears Ears National Monument, as you know, and they've been discussing among themselves the idea of remote creation of the Earth. How do you see that action?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Admirable. I admire that, because whether we are in Texas, Washington, D.C., Montana, Alaska, California, we need to protect what we have left. We're burning. I mean, I couldn't even go outside for three days, there was so much smoke. We were surrounded, and we couldn't see 50 feet in front of us when we were driving a car. And there's too much going on in this country, in this world, for us to be continuing to destroy any land that we have. We need to come together, the indigenous and non-indigenous people. We need to start preparing our future generations. I mean, every one of us have somebody we love that is young, and we need to stick our differences aside. We need to come together and prepare them. We can't stop climate change. We may be able to slow it down, but we're not going to be able to stop it. There's too much greed mixed in with it. So we need to come together, and we need to start preparing them for what's to come.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: And what would that preparation look like?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Well, first, I know it's a bit hard with the traveling and with another new disease that's impacting a lot of people's lives, but we need to start communicating. For instance, when I go to talk with people for help or anything, I don't do it by phone, and I don't do it by computer emails. I go travel to them. And I had a very uncomfortable encounter with somebody that told me, well I thought you Alaskan Natives sold out your land for oil. And I told him, that's not true, I'm here asking for your help. And he told me the government's going to get the government wants, and I said, well, they've wanted it for 30 years, they still haven't gotten it.
So I think we need to learn about each other's issues and all the indigenous people come together. We are stronger together, and we have so much allies, and if we just come together, we can make change.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: And I do think that the Arctic is an extraordinary story with the Refuge that, for decades, just at the point where it looks like the drilling is going to occur, something intercedes, whether it's direct action, whether it's brave members of Congress, whether it's grassroots mobilization in the Native communities and the non-Native communities. And I think that's been one of the most inspiring things for me as a conservationist with the Arctic, that it has become really the North Star, if you will, of what is possible. And I do think it is a place of relentless light, as well as a deepening darkness, and I just feel like the land itself is teaching us what to do. Does that make sense?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: It does. It just shows you that Congress, us, we're not in charge. Creator is. And it's gotten pretty close many times, but we're never going to give up. They're not going to go into the coastal plain. They will not destroy the calving grounds of the porcupine caribou herd.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: And I feel that there are multitudes of people, myself included, that would lay our bodies down with you, if that day should ever come, and I want you to know that, Bernadette. As a sister in the lower 48, I am by your side, and I will come and speak to you. I think that's the power of conversation, and I share your grief. We share familial stories, we share the deaths of our brothers, and I think we share this deep love of the land. But I turn to you for the depth of that love of land, and I feel humbled by your strength and by your voice and by your strength, and I want you to know it's been an honor to have this conversation with you. And I hope it's just the beginning.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Merci. Thank you. And I don't really have a choice. Everybody says I'm strong. I just I have my days, and I went to visit my son's grave for the first time when we were out doing the National Geographic documentary, and I lost it again. I started crying myself to sleep again, so I'm not strong. I'm just forced to live with it and get through it. I just don't know how to live without him.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: And no mother should have to. I'm so sorry.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Thank you.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Your words will stay with me like the Refuge stays with me, and all the miles between us feel lessened tonight. And I'm so honored to be able to introduce you to a friend of mine, Eric Descheenie, who is Diné. He is a brother in arms, and we were in Washington, D.C. Together when Trump gutted Bears Ears, and I will never forget what we shared on that day. So I'm so excited for him to come forward and to continue the conversation together.
What I can tell you about Eric is he's one of the most powerful leaders I've encountered in Indian country, that he bears the gift of oration. It's no wonder that he served as a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, the 53rd Arizona State Legislature, where nine of the 22 federally-recognized tribes in Arizona share jurisdiction. He's Dine, originally from Chinle in Dinétah, Navajo land. He was teasing me about my Navajo. It is not good, but out of respect, Eric, I'm going to try. He is Ma'ii Deeshgiizhinii, Coyote Pass People clan, born for Kinyaa'áanii, Towering House clan. His grandfathers are Bit'ahnii within his cover clan, and his paternal grandfathers are Honágháahnii, One-walks-around clan. Jonah Yellowman would be laughing, Eric.
In 2015, as an advisor to the Navajo Nation, Vice President Eric served as the founding co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, and I can tell you his voice made an extraordinary difference. The coalition consisted of five Indian, still does, Nations that share political boundaries with Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, and championed the proposal that would amount to the US Presidential Proclamation by President Obama establishing into law 1.31 million acres of Bears Ears National Monument in 2016. And the monument designated protections on shared ancestral land to at least 20 distinct indigenous peoples, including the Pueblos of present day New Mexico. He served as a delegate to the United Nations' Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People, and I could go on and on. Eric, I love you, and Bernadette, he has beautiful sons and is devoted to them, and he and his family reside in Flagstaff, Arizona. Over to you, Eric, with the response. And Bernadette, my deepest gratitude to you.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: Well, thank you so much for that introduction, Terry. I really appreciate the invitation by you and everybody else who has made this possible. Bernadette, thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of this and this conversation. There's all kinds of things that have been going through my head as to why I'm so grateful, and I hope it comes out in some of the questions that I ask. But first, can you hear me OK?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Yes.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: OK, good. I have a ton of questions, and I know I'm not going to have enough time to ask all of them, but I do want to preface some of the things that I have to say to some of our viewers, and just so that they have an idea or maybe some context as to why I'm asking the questions that I'm asking. When we as indigenous peoples speak about certain truths of our respective peoples, it's super important to understand that we all bring to the conversation intellectual lenses that, quite frankly, don't lend very good ones, particularly those coming from Western philosophy, when we're talking about indigenous peoples and the traditions from which we live and an advocate for in this case.
And so one way or another, we're all guilty of that. I am, simply because I was raised in the Western society, and a lot of my advocacy goes hand-in-hand with understanding my own lenses and where we can trip up on them. Even the English language itself is insufficient in conveying the kinds of concepts that, in certain instances, are crucial to being able to understand the concepts that I think that Bernadette is speaking to. And I don't want to put words in her mouth, but certainly when I speak and I hear a lot of other folks speak, English can be really problematic in trying to convey really important concepts. So that said, I'm going to try to choose my words carefully in answering and asking some of these questions.
Right out of the chute, I want to express my condolences to you, Bernadette, for the loss of your son. I can't imagine how that would feel. I have three sons myself, ages 12, 13, and 14, and I will certainly have you in my prayers on a go forward basis, and I'm very much heartfelt.
One of the questions that I have is-- and I'm just going to put this in context, and I wanted to see what your thoughts are, Bernadette. I grew up in the city, and so I really had to spend quite awhile and a of effort to try to understand traditional lenses as it relates to our own ancestral territory. But one of the things that I did that I found really insightful is in 2013 I moved my family into a howan, which is a hogan, often referred to as our traditional dwelling. It's an octagon-like home. It's a single m and traditionally, our people lived in those, and that was our home. So if you had 16 kids, which is probably a bit of an exaggeration, or 16 people in your family, you lived in the one-room octagon-like room. If you had eight, if you had four, if you had two, that was home.
In this case, I put my three little sons and myself in there, and no running water, no electricity, and dirt floors. It was a beautiful howan, but one of the things that a dear friend mentioned to me was that a howan is a microcosm of the universe, and living that way conveys certain truths that might not be so apparent, or truths that you might not fully grasp without actually living in it. In other words, being told that it's a thing is not sufficient. And I remember one particular morning, my kids were really young at the time, maybe ages 4, 5, and 6, and when they're that young, you like your quiet time, especially when you got to get on the internet, do some work, or something of that nature. And we didn't have internet, but I had enough juice in my laptop to try to get some work done prior to the day getting underway. And so you quietly open up your laptop, you push the power button on, it has that little chime, and you're like, no no no, be quiet, be quiet, I don't want my kids to wake up just yet. You started a fire so it warms up and all of this stuff, but I remember opening up the laptop and the light that emitted lit up my side of the hogan, which of course I set up opposite of where my children were sleeping.
And that's when I was reminded by the fact that if this is truly a microcosm of the universe, which it is, it means that what happens on my side of the universe or the world has an effect on the other side of the universe of the world. And therefore, we have a responsibility to not just folks on Navajo land or my immediate family within the structure we were in. I have a responsibility to people like yourself, Bernadette, or to the Gwich'in. The light that I emit would wake up my children, prematurely but more importantly, the point is that what we do in Arizona has a direct and indirect effect on people around the world. And that couldn't be any more true with respect to the climate crisis, which is to say, if in Arizona we shift, say, 100% to renewables, which would be a miracle around here, but let's just say that happened, that wouldn't be sufficient enough in order to turn this thing around. It truly is a global effort. And I'm just kind of curious, what kinds of conversations do you all have in your communities in all of this regard?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: No. You mean climate change?
ERIC DESCHEENIE: Yes.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Well, we had our very first Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit, and we just finished the report. It's out on our website. It's all traditional knowledge coming from people as far up as barrow, the core Yukon River, the Yukon River, Texas, and Arizona. And everybody shared, and then we had scientists share the difference in the climate and the changes that they're experiencing. So at that gathering, we had an, elder Steven Frost, from the [? Van Tat Gwich'in ?] people of the lakes, and they said that he came all the way down at 87 years old on a boat. And he said, enough with the talking, enough with the meetings, it's time for you guys to get active. He died four months later, and I am very honored that he took that time to come and tell us that, because we need to get active. I don't know what that looks like, but we need to try. We cannot leave it up to the youth. This is not a problem that they created, but we let them go out and march on their own, and we need to be standing right beside them. We need to be supportive.
And the Gwich'in steering committee had our first youth council, so we're educating and updating our youth, as well as the Arctic advocacy training that we have teaching more Gwich'in. It's been protected so long, so people are just kind of like, oh, OK it's taken care of. But the truth is we need all hands on deck right now.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: Well, thank you for that. I would love to learn more about the gentleman who came down who was 87 from the lake people. That sounds really amazing.
Kind of switching a bit here, you mentioned that you're caribou people. So I mentioned my three sons. Their mother is from Siletz, which is in Oregon. They're a coastal people, and their identity goes hand-in-hand with salmon. So in other words, my three sons are Siletz born from Navajo, and we often talk about that their health and their well-being is inextricably tied to the health and well-being of salmon. And then amongst Navajo, we are corn people, and, of course, our health goes hand-in-hand with also the mountains who determine our identity. And I'm always thinking about these things through a traditional knowledge lens. Could you explain a little bit more about caribou, caribou as relative, or Gwich'in people as caribou people?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Well, we have been spiritually and culturally connected to them. I mentioned before that our creation story tells us that there is a time we were able to communicate with them. We made a vow to each other, and for 40,000 years, they've taken care of us, and now they're calving grounds is threatened. It will be destroyed if there is oil development there. Now the other half of the northern part of Alaska is all open to oil and gas development, and the caribou herds that are there have all declined. One of them declined 57% since 2010, so they cannot tell us that our food security and that our caribou will not be negatively impacted, not when we see otherwise.
And some of the communities in that area will not hunt those caribou, because when they eat them, they get sick. So the caribou cannot tell us that they're sick, they're starving. They can't tell us that they're hurting or that we are hurting them, and that's why the Gwich'in people don't only speak for ourselves. We speak for our animals, we speak for our land, for our water, and we speak for humanity.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. My next question is related to some of my experience serving as part of the Inter-tribal Coalition to protect Bears Ears. It was a five-tribe coalition, but really, which is kind of a side note, it's really responsive to at least 20 tribes and pueblos who claim that as ancestral territory. But one of the things that we were successful with is really putting ourselves on the offense and organizing ourselves in a way where we made a proposal such that we would use traditional knowledge to inform, guide, and really shape the public lands management plan, as well as its administration. So much of Indian country spends a lot of time responding, meaning to protect this, save that, or defend this.
Bears Ears was unique in the sense that we were not so much protecting, because we actually were putting a lot of other folks on their heels. It was an unusual circumstance, but the value is that we sat down with other neighboring tribes, especially those who we have historical problems with and were able to coalesce along common grounds. Is that a possibility to transform the Refuge into maybe something else and petitioning the Biden administration? And forgive me, because I'm really out of context here with respect to what's been happening, but just food for thought.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Turn it into something else?
ERIC DESCHEENIE: To clarify, it's a refuge, but is it possible for it to get a different designation that perhaps puts tribes more in control to influence the use of the land? For Bears Ears, it was a national monument, which is different from a refuge designation. Yeah, hopefully, that clarifies it.
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Well, we were going to do that until-- We were going to Obama's first meetings after the election. We were going down there to actually ask for a monument. We all saw how Trump treated the indigenous people in this country, so it would have just been a waste of time. But this is calving grounds. As a mother myself, I know how special it is to have a child, and the caribou, this is where they go. This is their safety net. There's nowhere else for them to go. The rest of the Arctic is open to oil and gas development because it's state land, and everybody knows our state representatives and senators are addicted to oil. So this piece of federal lands, 5% needs to remain untouched.
But like I said, this world was not only made for human beings. Creator created the animals. We invaded their habitats. We destroyed many of their habitats, and that's not OK. I heard somebody say that Gwich'ins are mystical beliefs. Just because we value our plants, our animals, our land, trees, the water, it's mystical, and that's insulting, because this is our entire way of life. We are interconnected to all of these things. We respect all of these things, because they've come from Creator.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: I'm kind of looking at my notes here. Let's see here. When you mentioned that where you're at right now is ground zero for the climate crisis, what would you tell folks in Arizona? What would you say to those of us down here? I still want to know what your perspective is specific to the climate change, the climate crisis. What warnings would you say to Arizonans from your perspective and what you're experiencing there?
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Eric, Bernadette's internet may have frozen.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: Yeah. And we lost her.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I think so. Let me ask you what would you say to her in terms of the megadrought that we're in? What would you say to the North?
ERIC DESCHEENIE: Well, I'm really I'm looking at her people as really some of the authority on a lot of this stuff. She mentioned that they were at ground zero, and that's how I've always looked at folks from where she's living. And it seems to me that-- Did should join us again?
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Yes.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: OK.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Bernadette, are you there?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: Yes, I am. Something happen with my computer. I told you guys we're having issues with the internet here.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: How amazing that you're in Fairbanks in the Arctic, just to never take our technology for granted. So back over to the two of you for the last five minutes or so.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: I'm not sure if you had heard a lot of question, so I'll repeat it. You had mentioned that you all are at ground zero with respect to the climate crisis, and I don't doubt that for a moment. I'm just curious, what would your message be, a warning perhaps, to folks down here in Arizona where we're not at ground zero, but from where I'm looking at, we could definitely feel it. But what would you be your message?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: My message would be that I think everyone is feeling the impacts of climate change, whether it's drought, storms that are supposed to be 500 years apart, fires, but I would remind them that what happens up here is going to happen down there. We are dying two times, almost three times, faster than the rest of the world. I couldn't believe when I went home and I saw a island right in the middle of the Arctic, and there's even a tree on it. I mean, we have seasonal hunters that know the land by the back of their hand falling through the ice at a time the ice is supposed to be solid. We have some of the most greatest hunters that we've ever known having accidents and dying, so it's like our hunters are going, and the animals are too.
Like 80%, 90%, of the food in my freezer is traditional food. I can't survive without it, and I'm sure there's many Alaska Natives in that same situation. I know we live in two different worlds, trying to keep our identity, trying to keep our ways of life alive, and then we're living in another world where there's some people that will never understand why we value our land so much, why we value our water and our plants. Some of them will never understand, but we have to keep going. We have to keep speaking. You have to keep speaking. You have three boys. It's just the way we are. It's the way we were raised. Indigenous people protect, because that's what we were raised to do.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: Absolutely. I couldn't agree with you more. It seems to me that-- just kind of an editorial comment-- when as Navajo people, we look to our origin stories, there were three worlds prior to this one, some say four. It's up to debate internally over here, but nonetheless, the stories are pretty consistent as to what happened previously, and if we were to learn anything from that, everything you just said is true in terms of what we have to look forward to going forward. So I really appreciate that.
Kind of switching gears here. I think we have time for just one more. James Baldwin is a Black author. He was a Black author. He put together some really interesting texts over his career, and one comment that he is often quoted as, which I've always thought was interesting if we were to speak of it from an indigenous perspective, and I'm curious what your thoughts are. And there's a more pertinent question here in a second.
But he states, "To be a Negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time." I'll repeat it again. "To be a Negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time." And when I look at that and I say to myself, to be indigenous in this country, and then the rest of that, and be woke, it's to be in a rage almost all the time. And I thought, well, gosh, that explains why I'm always angry, because everywhere you look, day in, day out, you're brushing your teeth, driving on the street, or watching TV, you see something where you just find yourself shaking your head. And I think for the average common American person, they have no clue what that looks like, or feels rather.
And I just wanted to get your thoughts on what is it like to be. I mean, how does it feel to be Gwich'in, and not just relatively conscious, but incredibly conscious? I mean, how do you manage that anger? How do you think about yourself in a relationship to all these things that we should be angry about? And then how do you go about your work?
BERNADETTE DEMIENTIEFF: So I don't know if you guys are aware, but I have Black ancestry. My father is from Louisiana, and he's Black. My mom just has strong genes, so I know both worlds. I never was angry before. I just tried educating. I really do try to practice what my elders directed, to work in a good way. To work in a good way is the way you work with others, the way you talk to others, and it's even the way you think. And so I try to do that, but since the death of my son, I noticed I changed. I'm very short tempered. And so I just try to remind myself every day. I try to remind myself every day that this is not who he wants me to be, and then I have to be a better person.
If you don't know a good one, you have to be one, right? And you can't let anybody turn you into something that you are not. If I allow this arrogant brat to get to me, I will be allowing him into my space, into my heart, and I can't allow that. So when I find myself getting angry, I take time with Creator. I cannot start my day without Creator. It doesn't work out.
ERIC DESCHEENIE: Yeah. Very awesome. Thank you. And I think that completes my questions. Terry, thank you so much. So very quickly, Terry, I just want to say thank you so much to Bernadette. It's really an honor. You can have it.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: [INAUDIBLE] Eric and Bernadette, I feel like tonight has been an evening of truth telling by truth tellers, and it's been a privilege to listen to the two of you, to be engaged in this conversation, to realize the common ground we do share, and also how much we have to learn from your indigenous knowledge and being in place. You remind us that what happens on one side of the universe, as you said, Eric, is also allowing us to be responsible for what happens on the other side of the universe. That indeed we are in this together.
And Bernadette, I think we all heard you. All hands on deck, Native and non-Native alike, making vows together to the places we call home. You've given us a lot to think about. It's somber. Love is tied to grief, and we are in motion, and where that motion is going to take us we can only imagine. Darkness and light, relentless light, in the Arctic. A rapid growth season. Brian.
[SOUNDS OF TEA POURING CEREMONY]
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SPEAKER 1: Copyright 2021, the President and Fellows of Harvard College.