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A Captivating Look at One of the World’s Last Wild Frontiers

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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is part of the Porcupine caribou herd’s annual migration route.

Photo by Mason Cummings

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is part of the Porcupine caribou herd’s annual migration route.

As the federal government moves to industrialize Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one photography project explores how the oil drilling would impact the wildlife and indigenous communities who’ve long inhabited the land.

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In the northeastern corner of Alaska, a 19-million acre stretch of wilderness known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge serves as home to a large number of polar bears, gray wolves, Grizzlies, whales, seals, foxes, fish, caribou, and migratory birds. Biologists often refer to the diverse ecological zone (which is roughly the size of the state of South Carolina) as America’s Serengeti. But the Gwich’in people who’ve lived in the area for thousands of years know its coastal plain by another name: lizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or “the sacred place where life begins.” 

The Gwich’in people consider the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be “the sacred place where life begins.” 

The indigenous name for this Arctic landscape refers to its significance as a seasonal haven for Porcupine caribou, which migrate to the plains every spring to use the area as calving and nursing grounds. For the Gwich’in and Iñupiat communities in northern Alaska and Canada, these caribou are an integral source of survival, providing sustenance as well as materials for clothing and tools. The mammals are also seen as spiritual symbols: Gwich’in lore says that the native people and the caribou hold a piece of each other in their hearts.

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has had its sights set on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a prospect for oil exploration. The protected landscape now faces a serious threat of being opened to drilling, which would upend traditional ways of life for the many animal species as well as indigenous communities who call the landscape home. 

A captivating new project called Stories for the Arctic Refuge compiles images from photographers whose work highlights the importance of preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and protecting the future of those who live there.

Every year, Porcupine caribou embark on the longest migration of any land mammal on Earth to their calving grounds in the Arctic refuge.

The faces of the Arctic Refuge

The collection of photographs featured in Stories for the Arctic Refuge were all taken in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic during recent years. According to photographers Keri Oberly and Jenny Irene Miller, who cocurated a special exhibition of the project with photographer Peter Mather (on view through September 22 at Photoville in New York City), the images spotlight the many living beings whose survival depends on the landscape.

Native Village of Nuiqsut Tribal Administrator, Martha Itta, searches for caribou along the production road to ConocoPhillips’s Greater Mooses Tooth Unit outside the village of Nuiqsut, Alaska.

“We’re trying to cover the full spectrum of what the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge represents,” says cocurator Oberly, who traveled to the remote Alaska area during summer 2018 to document images featured in the exhibit. “It’s a critical habitat for fish, caribou, polar bears, wolves, and also it’s sacred land to the Gwich’in and Iñupiat people.”

“We really wanted to include the beauty of the environment and the people who have lived in relation to the land, water, and animals,” adds cocurator Miller, an Inupiaq photographer who herself hails from northwest Alaska, just across the state from the contested Arctic refuge. “Often, coverage [of the refuge] focuses heavily on the animals and can forget the people,” she continues. “Indigenous people have depended on the refuge for millenia. They still depend on it now.”

The Arctic Village, where Gwich’in communities live, is on the southern edge of the remote Alaska refuge.

Stories for the Arctic Refuge is presented by Native Movement—an Alaska-based organization that advocates for grassroots projects related to climate justice and indigenous rights—with Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society (both environmental organizations). In addition to images taken by nonnatives of Alaska who traveled to the Arctic refuge to document the situation at hand, the project also features images taken by indigenous contributors with a deep connection to the area.

“It’s really important that the people who want to protect their ways of life and their sacred lands are at the forefront,” says Miller, in terms of spreading knowledge about the current threat facing the Arctic refuge and its inhabitants. “They need to be included. They need to be at the table.”

In September 2019, the U.S. Interior Department published its final plan to open the refuge to oil development.

As part of this effort, the entrance to the Stories for the Arctic Refuge exhibit at Photoville features a “land acknowledgement” that details the indigenous history of the land where the pop-up photo festival takes place. “That’s a really important piece of the exhibition,” Miller says, “to show our respects and just bring that history forward to get people more used to acknowledging the land they’re on. All of what we call the United States today is indigenous land.”

A battle over contested land

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is home to a vast array of wildlife including caribou, polar bears, wolves, foxes, and migratory birds from all 50 U.S. states.

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In December 2017, Congress passed a bill including plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. As recently as September 12, 2019, the Interior Department published its final plan to make the refuge accessible to development for the fossil fuel industry, outlining a proposal to allow for leasing on up to 1.56 million acres of the refuge—including the coastal plain used by caribou as annual calving grounds. 

On the same day the plan was published, the House voted to block drilling in the refuge, arguing that oil exploration would cause irreparable harm to wildlife in the area, which is already at risk from warming temperatures and other effects of climate change. The plan would bring about a network of roads, pipelines, gravel mines, and machinery to the protected refuge, industrializing the country’s largest wildlife preserve—even though there’s been debate about how much oil actually sits beneath the landscape’s surface in the first place.

A section of coastline falls during a 2008 storm in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Arctic is ground zero for climate change; it is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

The future of this legislation is still up in the air, as is the future for those who live off the land in this remote protected area in Alaska. For the curators of Stories for the Arctic Refuge, the goal is that images from the project will help people in far-reaching places understand the urgency of protecting the refuge. “We hope viewers will feel inspired to advocate for the Arctic Refuge,” Oberly says, pointing to the words of Trimble Gilbert, who serves as the Traditional Chief of Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ (the Arctic Village where the Gwich’in live): 

“For thousands of years, the Gwich’in people have lived in the Arctic, taking care of the land and animals. We feed our families and sustain our culture by living on the land, taking only what we need, and caring for our clean air, clean water and abundant wildlife. To my people, wilderness is not a luxury or indulgence.

“It is a necessity.”

The indigenous Gwich’in and Iñupiat people of the Arctic have lived primarily off the landscape for thousands of years.

A special exhibition of Stories for the Arctic Refuge is on view through September 22 at Photoville NYC, a free-to-attend annual photography festival in New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge Park.

>> Next: The Free, Pop-Up Photo Festival You Can’t Miss in New York City

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