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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Checking our national conscience


Since the 1990s, a growing number of college campuses, cities and states have rebuffed the federal holiday of Columbus Day and instead commemorated Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which rejects the glamorized mythology of our national origin stories. Indigenous Peoples’ Day highlights the violence at the core of American history and calls attention to the systemic oppression of native peoples. Institutions face ongoing pressure to confront their own complicity in the decimation of native communities, as seen on our own campus, where the ubiquity of the controversial Serra name prompted a renaming committee that is currently grappling with these difficult historical truths.

Nevertheless, as we acknowledge these stains on our national and institutional histories, Congress is working towards legislation that would displace yet another native population and erase their culture, repeating our shameful past.

Last week, Congress narrowly passed a budget resolution with a provision that would allow for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The ANWR stands as one of the few remaining intact landscapes in America. The environmental integrity of the refuge is crucial to the Gwich’in people, who depend on it for religious practices and subsistence. Interfering with the refuge would cut off the Gwich’in people’s ties to their cultural heritage and degrade the ecosystem on which they depend for both spirituality and survival.

In 1980, the U.S. government gave official wilderness status to most of the refuge. However, this designation excludes the 1.5 million-acre Coastal Plain region. This area, considered the “biological heart” of the refuge, remains an unprotected temptation for oil and gas companies, not to mention politicians with a stake in their success. The political battle to open drilling in the ANWR has resurged under every administration for the past three decades — Congress has voted on whether to open the refuge for drilling nearly 50 times. President Trump’s budget request included a line item that would open the refuge to oil and gas drilling. The House of Representatives’ budget proposal required that the Natural Resources Committee come up with $5 billion in savings over the next decade — a provision that implicitly directs the committee to open up ANWR for development.

Last week, Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, sponsored a budget amendment blocking any such “legislative sneak” that would permit drilling. Largely on party lines, the Senate rejected the amendment 48-52 (Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, and Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, defected from their parties’ positions). Now, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has until Nov. 13 to draft legislation that would generate $1 billion in revenue, which is considered a directive to allow for development in the refuge. The bill will not be subject to a filibuster, meaning that it could easily pass without bipartisan support. The committee chairwoman, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, is a longtime champion of drilling in the ANWR.

Proponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge point to the national security benefits of independence from foreign oil sources. These benefits, however, would be far too short-lived to justify the destruction of an ecosystem and the resulting displacement of the Gwich’in people, and would sacrifice our security in the long run. Estimates show that fossil fuel resources in the Coastal Plain would only meet three years of the world’s demand. Meanwhile, burning these fossil fuels would increase greenhouse gas emissions, further exacerbating climate change — a national security threat in itself.

The Coastal Plain is an important habitat for polar bears — which may abandon their dens and their cubs at the disturbance of oil drilling activities — and a primary calving ground for one of North America’s last remaining caribou herds. Oil exploration in the Coastal Plain would interfere with the caribou’s migration patterns and push them into terrain with fewer resources and more predators — a devastation not only to the species, but also to the Gwich’in people, as caribou constitutes 75 percent of the typical Gwich’in diet. Furthermore, in the Gwich’in creation story, the Coastal Plain is the sacred place where all life begins. For thousands of years, the Gwich’in people have seen themselves as spiritually connected to the caribou population.

In writing this column, I hesitated to speak on behalf of the Gwich’in population. The outcome of the ANWR decision will have little direct bearing on my life, and native voices should be centered in these crucial moments. Yet, as a citizen, I feel obligated to call attention to government actions that violate not only my own moral principles, but also international human rights standards. In doing so, I aim to amplify the concerns that the Gwich’in people have already expressed. As the Gwich’in Steering Committee reported: “The Gwich’in have the inherent right to continue our own way of life; and that this right is recognized and affirmed by civilized nations in the international covenants on human rights.”

The environmental arguments for ANWR protection are clear — drilling would pose a risk to biodiversity, exacerbate climate change and deprive future generations of an untainted natural landscape. Yet we cannot overlook the crucial human dimension to this decision. By opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Congress would state that it is willing to violate the liberty and human rights of the Gwich’in people, force them to forego their traditional practices and threaten their survival. In some respects, this is a temperature check on our national conscience. The ANWR decision signals whether we are willing to perpetuate our shameful treatment of native populations or if we will strive to relegate it to history textbooks.

As we think critically about commemoration on campus and acknowledge historical injustices, we must also look forward. I urge the Stanford community to elevate native voices who have the greatest stake in this issue, pay attention to the upcoming ANWR legislation, and pressure our lawmakers to keep the refuge intact. We can never undo the inexcusable, catastrophic stains on our national narrative, but we can fight to prevent atrocities from repeating themselves.

To contact your legislators and research further opportunities for action, visit


Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’

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