Indigenous communities fighting climate change

Princess Daazhraii Johnson | August 11, 2015

Old John Lake. Photo: Kisha X. Palmer

Old John Lake. Photo: Kisha X. Palmer

The crying of a loon carries across the lake – it’s more of a howl, actually – and I say to Chief Galen Gilbert, “zhoh?” To my untrained ears it sounds so much like a wolf, and I have wolves on my mind since one had just wandered into the village the week before.  The wolves are hungry.  He listens as the howling rings across the water once again, and even our smallest children’s ears prick up to identify the sound.

“No,” he says, “it’s a loon.” We all sigh in relief, but decide to take it as a sign it’s time to head back home.

There are many signs across the land.  The land is speaking to us; the animals and birds.  The elders tell us to go out on the land and to speak our Gwich’in language. That relationship is thousands of years old and we must keep the connection strong.  Around Arctic Village the fresh springs that once graced the nearby mountains and that are depended upon for fresh water are dry, the lakes low.

These are unprecedented changes. The changes in weather our elders, through our traditional ecological knowledge systems, warned us of so many years ago have arrived.  We are living in rapidly changing times.

In the Arctic Village Tribal Council office we meet with the remaining elders of the village. They speak of how crucial it is we continue to respect the Porcupine Caribou herd and all the other animals we depend upon to feed our community. Respect is shown in how we prepare for hunting and fishing, how we harvest, how we butcher and utilize the parts of the animal and how we share. These are all a part of our traditional Gwich’in ways and in more modern times have been written down in our tribal ordinances.   Protection of the birthing and calving grounds of the porcupine caribou on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge continues to be a top priority of the Gwich’in Nation through the work of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

All of our traditional practices were balanced with the laws of nature.  We understood the necessity for replenishment and rejuvenation, of taking only what you needed.  Today you hear the term ‘sustainability.’ However, this terminology does not include the spiritual connection that we as indigenous peoples have practiced in relationship to our environments.   This lack of honoring and respecting our ecosystems has led us to the troubling predicament we find ourselves in today.

Climate change is the result of an attempted conquest of nature and the violent exploitation of Mother Earth’s resources by a male dominated patriarchal system. The healing of our Mother is tied directly to our spiritual evolution as humanity and an embracing of different worldviews.  Here is Alaska, protecting sacred places like the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge continues to be a moral issue for the United States.

To quote the poet, Wendel Berry, “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”

Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Gwich’in Athabascan) is a mother and Master’s student at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She was recently appointed by President Obama to serve on the Board of Trustees for the Institute of American Indian Arts and also serves on the SAG/AFTRA Native American Committee.  She has done much work speaking out on climate change and is the former Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee whose work is in protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


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