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Sierra Club

Trimble Gilbert is one of the few remaining speakers of a language that UNESCO rates as "severely endangered."

He lives in a tiny town near the Arctic Circle in Alaska, close to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. The town, population 152, is called Arctic Village.

Gilbert is a Gwich'in Athabascan elder and one of the last few hundred speakers of the Gwich'in language.


Listen to his story here, accompanied by beautiful images of his native land:

When Gilbert was born, the Gwich'in were still a highly nomadic people.

He was born in 1935. The Gwich'in were still largely nomadic through the 1950s, traveling seasonally with their food sources.

Gilbert shares, "At the time I was born, I remember how my family and the Gwich'in people lived. They took care of animals and held them in high respect. They also took care of the land."

Image via Sierra Club.

The Gwich'in people span a wide area across northern Alaska and Canada, encompassing over a dozen communities. For example, some live near the lakes of Old Crow, Yukon (Vuntut Gwitch'in), whereas others are in the flats of Fort Yukon, Alaska (Gwich'yaa Gwich'in). Today, crossing the U.S.-Canadian border isn't nearly as simple as it used to be.

"Everywhere they traveled on the land, they would not kill animals without reason."

As a nomadic people, the Gwich'in have always relied heavily on animals and the land for survival. Gilbert explains, "They would not kill animals without reason." Their relationship with the land was based on mutual respect.

The Gwich'in people live close to the land and have been fighting for many years to protect it.

Even today, Gwich'in people continue to hunt caribou as the caribou migrate near their home, across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Image via Sierra Club.

But the land that sustains the herds of caribou — and in turn sustains the Gwich'in culture — has been part of an oil development conversation for decades.

A recent Al Jazeera profile of Arctic Village adds context to Gilbert's words:

“Since the late 1980s, the Gwich'in people, who live in 15 villages that stretch from Alaska into Canada, have been deeply involved in a fight to stop the push for oil development on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

Nobody wants an oil disaster. But that's what drilling near Arctic Village could mean.

26 years ago, Gilbert's life was "touched by a shadow" when the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska. While the spill was 500 miles south of Gilbert's land, he told People Magazine, "I keep thinking about what is happening to the native people there who live off the land."

"I keep thinking about what is happening to the native people there who live off the land."

Today, discussions are still happening that could mean more oil spills — closer to Gwich'in land — and more disruption of the caribou calving grounds.

Gilbert says, "If they destroy the land, it will be the end of the Gwich'in people."

The only way to truly sustain his people, Gilbert knows, is to put an end to the oil development projects near their land.

This is the only way the Gwich'in culture can "continue living beyond the next two generations."

"If they destroy the land, it will be the end of the Gwich'in people."

via UNSW

This article originally appeared on 07.10.21


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