Gwich'in Steering Committee

Protecting the Sacred Place Where Life Begins since 1988

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caribouisourlifeGwich’in Steering Committee needs your help. Gwich’in Steering Committee is a non-profit 501(C)(3) organization dedicated to preserving the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, the birthing and nursery ground of the Porcupine River caribou herd from oil and gas drilling and protecting Gwich’in culture. Please help us in our fight to save The Sacred Place Where Life Begins. You can help support us by sending a tax-deductible donation at the following address:

The Gwich’in Steering Committee
122 First Avenue, Box 2
Fairbanks, AK. 99701
tel (907) 458-8264 fax (907) 457-8265

History of Wreckage

In the past 30 years, Exxon, British Petroleum, Conoco and other multinational oil corporations have turned over 1,000 square miles of Alaska’s North Slope into an industrialized oil field maze that includes:

  • 500 miles of roads and pipelines
  • More than 200 exploration and production gravel drilling pads
  • 4,800 exploratory and production oil and gas wells
  • Largest concentration of gas turbines in the world
  • 28 oil processing facilities, power plants, refineries, etc.
  • 36 gravel mines
  • 2 jet airports and numerous airstrips

Their record of environmental abuse ranges from the largest oil disaster in American history to the daily despoiling of Alaska’s land.

oiledduck The devastating 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill befouled 1,500 miles of shoreline along Prince William Sound, an area as vast as the distance from Massachusetts to North Carolina. Sixteen years later, much of the Sound’s wildlife still show little or no sign of recovering, including the region’s sea otters, harbor seals, orca whales, Pacific herring, marbled murrelets, harlequin ducks, pigeon guillemots and three species of cormorants.

The oil industry continues its record of wreckage. Consider that on the North Slope:

  • 95% of the area is already open to exploration or development by the oil industry;
  • 70,000 tons of nitrogen oxides pollute the air each year, more that twice the amount emitted in Washington, DC;
  • 500 spills of crude oil, other petroleum products and dozens of other toxic substances occur annually, adding up to 1.9 million gallons spills since 1996;

The National Academy of Sciences documented major negative impacts from oil development on wildlife, the land, and Native American cultures across extensive areas of the North Slope.

prudhoebay1 Their study, Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska’s North Slope (2003), concluded oil development harmed wildlife and habitats in many ways:

  • Major cumulative impacts to caribou, grizzly and polar bears, waterfowl and shorebirds, and endangered bowhead whales;
  • The Porcupine Caribou Herd is the most vulnerable to human-caused and natural stresses of all the caribou herds in Alaska;
  • Natural recovery of tundra is very slow, “it is unlikely that most disturbed habitat on the North Slope will ever be restored.”

The National Academy of Sciences study documented harm to Alaska Native hunting, fishing and the land upon which they depend:

  • “The committee heard repeatedly from North Slope Inupiat residents that the imposition of a huge industrial complex on the Arctic landscape was offensive to the people and an affront to the spirit of the land.”
  • “The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) fundamentally changed the relationship between North Slope Alaska Natives and the environment they had occupied for thousands of years. The effects of that change accumulate to the present.”
  • “North Slope residents also reported that traditional subsistence hunting areas have been reduced, the behavior and migratory patterns of key subsistence species have changed, and that there is increased incidence of cancer and diabetes and disruption of traditional social systems.”
  • “…There are subtle changes in species harvested by subsistence hunters, who have identified changes in the color, texture, and taste of the flesh and skin of several species.”
  • “Alaska Natives told the committee that anxiety over increasing offshore and onshore oil and gas activity is wide-spread in North Slope communities. Hunters worry about not being able to provide for their families or about the added risk and expense of doing so if game is more difficult to find… They worry about contamination of the food they consume and know that their health will suffer if they are unable to eat as their ancestors did”

prudhoeblacksmoke The National Academy of Sciences also reported health and social impacts from oil and gas development and few jobs for local Alaska Natives:

  • “In addition to stress contributing to adverse health effects, oil development has increased the smog and haze near some villages, which residents believe is causing an increase in asthma. The stress of integrating a new way of life with generations of traditional teachings has increased alcoholism, drug abuse, and child abuse. Higher consumption of non-subsistence food…has increased the incidence of diabetes.”
  • “That few who live in the North Slope Borough are directly employed by the oil and gas industry has been noted for almost two decades… and is supported by findings of both the NSB survey … and the Alaska Department of Labor.”
  • “In addition, Inupiat at Prudhoe Bay find they are a small minority in a primarily white workforce that can sometimes express hostility toward Alaska Natives. The jobs available to the Inupiat often are seen by them as menial or as token jobs.”

The National Academy of Sciences noted the major concerns of the Gwich’in regarding subsistence resources and their culture:

  • “The Gwich’in believe that oil and gas-related activities there [in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] would affect the reproductive potential and migration patterns of the Porcupine Caribou herd and as a result threaten their way of life. As with the Inupiaq concerns about offshore development, the beliefs are intense and widespread and themselves constitute a continuing effect that is exacerbated by the past and current political debate over development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge… The threats accumulate because there have been repeated attempts to develop the area and there is continuing pressure to do so.”

Arctic Refuge

caribouandcalfRenowned for its wildlife, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is inhabited by forty-five species of land and marine mammals. It was established in 1960 as a promise to the American people to preserve “wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” Vast and remote, this 19.5-million-acre refuge is the size of South Carolina. While 8.9 million acres are designated as wilderness, the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, the biological heart of the Refuge, does not yet have wilderness designation. Oil drilling has been proposed on the coastal plain.

The Refuge shares a common border with Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks in Canada, which in combination constitutes one of the largest conservation areas in the world. North to south, the Refuge extends 200 miles—from the Arctic coast, across the tundra plain, over glacier-capped peaks of the Brooks Range, and into the spruce and birch forests of the Yukon basin. The Refuge preserves a continuum of Arctic and sub-Arctic ecozones.

It contains the greatest variety of plant and animal life of any conservation area in the circumpolar north. It is home to thirty-six species of land mammals; nine marine mammal species live along its coast; thirty-six fish species inhabit its rivers and lakes; and 180 species of birds converge here from six continents.

MAP of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Indigenous Cultures

gwichincamp2 The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been the homeland to the Gwich’in Athabascan people of interior Alaska and the Inupiat people of the north coast. Both cultures have subsisted on this land for thousands of years. The Gwich’in have respected this land and its animals for millennia, caring for its clean air, clean water, and clean land.



sandpiper The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to thirty-six species of land mammals; nine marine mammal species live along its coast; thirty-six fish species inhabit its rivers and lakes; and 180 species of birds converge here from six continents.

The 100,000 to 110,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd migrates throughout the Refuge and northwestern Canada. The pregnant females come to the coastal plain to give birth in late May and early June. The annual migration of this herd is the reason the Refuge is sometimes called “America’s Serengeti.” The local Gwich’in people who have depended on the caribou for thousands of years call the caribou birthing place, the coastal plain, “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins).

All three species of North American bear (black, grizzly, and polar) range within its borders. The Refuge is the only national conservation area where polar bears regularly den, and it is the most consistently used polar bear land-denning area in Alaska. The pregnant bears dig their dens in November, then give birth to one or two tiny cubs in December or January. The mothers nurse and care for the young inside the den until March or early April at which point they emerge before heading for the sea ice.

The once-endangered muskox, an Ice-Age relic, live year-round on the Refuge coastal plain and give birth to their young from mid-April through mid-May, when the coastal plain is still fully covered in snow.

The Refuge contains North America’s northernmost Dall sheep population. A year-round resident, they have lived in the Refuge since the Pleistocene.

Millions of birds come to the Refuge each year. Their migrations take them to each of the fifty states, and they cross great oceans and follow distant coastlines to reach the lands and waters of six continents. About seventy species of birds nest on the narrow coastal plain.

Each autumn, the coastal plain of the Refuge supports up to 300,000 snow geese, which leave their nesting grounds in Canada and detour here to feed on cotton grass to build fat reserves and gain energy before heading south to their wintering grounds.


unnamedlake The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a place of wildness, where timeless ecological and evolutionary processes continue in their natural ebb and flow. The mystery of nameless valleys remains alive, where one can experience solitude, self-reliance, exploration, adventure, and challenge. The spirit of wilderness prevails here.

The majestic Brooks Range rises from the coastal plain here only ten to forty miles from the Beaufort Sea. The Refuge includes the four highest peaks and most of the glaciers in the Brooks Range. More than twenty rivers flow through the Refuge, and three are designated as wild: the Sheenjek, Ivishak, and Wind. It contains North America’s two largest and most northerly alpine lakes – Peters and Schrader.

Numerous prominent geological formations, including a range of permafrost and glacial features, are found here. It contains several warm springs, which support plant species unique to the area.

In this land of seasonal extremes, the summer sun remains above the horizon for months; in winter, the dark sky is enlivened by the multicolored aurora borealis.

Compiled with permission from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, The Mountaineers Books and United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports.

Gwich’in Niintsyaa (Resolution)

childrendance_cropResolution to Prohibit Development in the Calving and Post-Calving Grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd

For thousands of years our ancestors, the Gwich’in Athabascan Indians of northeast Alaska and northwest Canada, have relied on caribou for subsistence, and continue today to subsist on the Porcupine Caribou Herd which is essential to meet the nutritional, cultural and spiritual needs of our people; and

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. Article 1 of both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights read in part: “…In no case may a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence.”; and

The health and Productivity of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and their availability to Gwich’in communities, and the very future of our people are endangered by proposed oil and gas exploration and development in the calving and post-calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-Coastal Plain; and

The entire Gwich’in Nation was called together by our chiefs in Arctic Village June 5-10 to carefully address this issue and to seek the advice of our elders; and

The Gwich’in people of every community from Arctic Village, Venetie, Fort Yukon, Beaver, Chalkyitsik, Birch Creek, Stevens Village, Circle, and Eagle Village in Alaska; from Old Crow, Fort McPherson, Arctic Red River, Aklavik, and Inuvik in Canada have reached consensus in our traditional way, and now speak with a single voice.

That the United States Congress and President recognize the rights of our Gwich’in people to continue to live our way of life by prohibiting development in the calving and post-calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd;

That the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be made Wilderness to achieve this end. Passed unanimously this 10th day of June 1988 by the Chiefs and people of the Gwich’in Nation in Arctic Village, Alaska.

Gwich’in Culture

ravendanceThe Gwich’in are the northernmost Indian Nation living in fifteen small villages scattered across vast area extending from northeast Alaska in the U.S. to the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. There are about nine thousand Gwich’in people who currently make their home on or near the migratory route of the Porcupine River Caribou Herd in communities in Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. The word “Gwich’in” means “people of the land”, and it refers to a people who have lived in the Arctic since before the political boundaries that now transect the Gwich’in homelands were drawn on maps dividing Alaska and Canada. Oral tradition indicates that the Gwich’in have occupied this area since time immemorial, or, according to conventional belief, for as long as 20,000 years.

Map Showing Primary Habitat of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and Traditional Homeland of the Gwich’in.

The Gwich’in nation spans Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and the Northwest Territories.

gwichincamp Alaska: The Gwich’in in Alaska live in nine communities, Arctic Village, Beaver, Birch Creek, Canyon Village, Chalkyitsik, Circle, Eagle Village, Fort Yukon and Venetie. Their communities are organized under tribal governments with elected chiefs and councils. The Council of Athapaskan Tribal Governments is a consortium of the Gwich’in and two Koyukon tribal governments to address regional concerns as directed by the tribes.


Yukon: Vuntut Gwitchin is the name of people who live in the settlement of Old Crow, Yukon. The name in the Gwich’in language means “people of the lakes”. Old Crow is the northernmost Yukon community, located at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine Rivers.


Northwest Territories: The Gwich’in communities Fort McPherson (Teetl’it Zheh), Tsiigehtchic, Aklavik and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories are located in the region of the Mackenzie Delta.

amycarrollFor thousands of years, Gwich’in have relied upon the Porcupine River Caribou Herd to meet their subsistence needs. Each spring they watch first the pregnant cows, and later the bulls and yearlings leave their country in their northern migration to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the caribou birthing place and nursing grounds. The Gwich’in are caribou people. The birthplace of the Porcupine River Caribou Herd is considered Sacred. The Gwich’in call it “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). The Porcupine herd is named after its spring and fall crossings of the Porcupine River, during its annual migration. The Porcupine Caribou herd consists of approximately 129,000 animals. Each spring they migrate from their winter range in the boreal forests of the Chandalar, Porcupine and Peel Rivers, north to their spring calving and nursery grounds on the Arctic coast plain of northeastern Alaska and Yukon. Today, as in the days of their ancestors, the caribou is still vital for food, clothing, tools, and are a source of respect and spiritual guidance for the Gwich’in.

About Us

The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 in response to increasing threats to open the Sacred Place Where Life Begins, the coastal plain (also known as 1002 area) of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to leasing for oil. Recognizing that this threat to the caribou calving grounds was a threat to the very heart of our people, the elders called upon the chiefs of all villages from Canada to Alaska to hold a traditional gathering, Gwich’in Niintsyaa, in Arctic Village for the first time in over a century. In this meeting, we addressed the issue with a talking stick in accordance with our traditional way, and came to the unanimous agreement that we would speak with one voice against oil and gas development in the birthing and nursing grounds of the Porcupine River caribou herd. Over the past 15 years, the Steering Committee staff, board, and volunteers have succeeded at a grassroots level to educate the public and decision-makers on why the “coastal plain” of the Arctic Refuge must be permanently protected as wilderness. We feel strongly that a major part of our achievements are a direct result of the continuing wisdom and guidance provided to us by our elders. The Gwich’in people stand united in our continued efforts to protect the “1002 area” from oil and gas development.

Please explore this site to learn more about the Gwich’in Culture, our relationship with the caribou and the land, and our struggle to preserve Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins), the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A Moral Choice for the United States

The Human Rights Implications for the Gwich’in of Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Gwich’in Steering Committee report concludes that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would violate the human rights of the Gwich’in people because of the impacts drilling would have on Gwich’in subsistence, culture, and way of life. The report was prepared on behalf of, and under the auspices of, the Gwich’in Steering Committee along with the Episcopal Church and Professor Richard J. Wilson, Director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University. The public interest law firm Trustees for Alaska coordinated the preparation of the report.