In early December 2017, three separate lawsuits appeared in defense of Bears Ears National Monument, filed in response to the White House’s decision to drastically reduce the monument’s boundaries. These suits were brought by a variety of stakeholders: five Native American tribes and various nonprofits, along with Patagonia. While the latter’s lawsuit was led by the Navajo nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah, Patagonia’s involvement served as a call to action for the outdoor industry to not only take up the fight, but also help elevate the Indigenous voices who were leading the charge.
With the release of the new documentary short Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee, professor and activist Len Necefer hopes the outdoor industry will once more take up the cause, this time by joining Alaska’s Gwich’in people in defending the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas development.
Necefer is a skier, mountaineer, writer, assistant professor at the University of Arizona, and founder of NativesOutdoors, an organization that seeks to increase representation of Native Americans across all facets of the outdoor industry. He is also a member of the Navajo Nation who grew up on the reservation and saw firsthand the effects of long-term coal and uranium mining, along with more recent oil and gas extraction.
Uranium mining, in particular, left a toxic scar across the landscape and on human health. Navajo miners weren’t informed of the dangers of their work, and they weren’t provided with necessary safety equipment. Many of the now-dormant mines were never cleaned up, their radioactive tailings leaking into crucial aquifers; the slightest breeze carried hazardous dust from these sites into homes and lungs. Public health studies showed an increased cancer rate for Navajo miners—not that they were informed of the findings. Necefer’s own grandfather developed silicosis in his right lung at 40 years old, after a decade of mining. “He was one of the lucky ones,” says Necefer. “Most people his age were dying.”
Energy development on Navajo lands was equally destructive in other ways. In one case, federal government interest in securing oil and mineral rights on reservation land led to the passage of the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, a deceptive piece of legislation that resulted in a forced relocation of over 10,000 Navajo people in order to clear access for coal mining. “It’s kind of ironic,” says Necefer. “While all of these power plants were being developed, exporting energy to large cities, a third of Navajo homes don’t have access to running water or electricity.”
Necefer decided to pursue a career that allowed him to help his community while also ensuring that other Indigenous communities didn’t face similar issues. While in graduate school (his doctorate is from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy), he took a position with the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs and worked on issues facing the Arctic, a priority during the Obama administration. During that time, Necefer traveled to Alaska and met people from the Gwich’in community, whose existence is deeply tied to the Porcupine caribou who migrate across the area. Energy development, including exploratory drilling, threatens the herd—and the people who rely upon it for subsistence.
When Trump was elected and Department of Energy priorities shifted toward a policy of “energy dominance” and a renewed interest in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, Necefer decided to leave his post with the federal government. “Seeing what’s on the docket with the Arctic Refuge, it’s just a replay of history in a big way,” he says. “I just felt an obligation to do something about it.”
Conceived in the wake of the fight to protect Bears Ears, Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee was inspired by that feeling of personal obligation. The film, co-directed by Greg Balkin, who also worked with Necefer on the film Messengers, documents a visit to Gwichyaa Zhee (also known as Fort Yukon), a Gwich’in village located just south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While there is some focus on Necefer’s personal story, the film focuses heavily on the people whose livelihoods—and lives—are directly impacted by potential development in the Refuge.
The Gwich’in are now facing increased pressure; the federal government has fast-tracked efforts to pave the way for exploratory drilling to begin in the Refuge. Necefer says that if and when the push for border wall funding fails, that will only further fuel the Trump administration’s efforts to secure a “win” in the Arctic. He feels the key to success is to join efforts, as we saw happen with Bears Ears. “Tribes had this legal and political presence, but the outdoor industry has social influence and money,” says Necefer. “You combine the strengths of those different user groups, and it can really be a strong force.”
The hope is that Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee helps mobilize the outdoor community to display the same show of force that happened with Bears Ears. Patagonia is already on board; the brand is hosting a film tour at their retail locations that begins this month. The stops along the tour were chosen very intentionally; the hope is that audiences in those cities will call and write to critical legislators, to press them to oppose drilling in the Refuge. Home screening kits will also be available. Of course, Necefer hopes that anyone who cares about the issue will contact their Congressional representatives, whether or not they oppose drilling in the Refuge, to voice concern.
Ultimately, Necefer would like to see the Refuge designated as a national monument. In the interim, he just hopes that more people will heed the alarm sounded for decades by the Gwich’in community. “I think too much of the focus on the Arctic Refuge has been on animals and beautiful landscapes, and not the people,” he says. “If you’re concerned about continued genocide of Native people, this is the most modern iteration of that topic.”
“What happened with Bears Ears, and what hopefully is happening with the Arctic Refuge, is that Native voices are leading the fight, because at the end of the day, this is a human rights issue. This is literally people fighting for their existence. I don’t know how else to explain that,” says Necefer. “The environment and Native cultures are intertwined in such that if you destroy one, you destroy the other.”
You can watch a trailer of Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee below.
Photos courtesy Greg Balkin