Heroes

Ever heard of the Gwich'in people? One member is afraid they won't last another 2 generations.

He's one of the last few hundred speakers of the Gwich'in language.

Ever heard of the Gwich'in people? One member is afraid they won't last another 2 generations.
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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."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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