From the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Bears Ears National Monument, sacred Indigenous lands across the country are in the sightlines of oil companies, whose relentless pursuit of new oil and gas reserves endanger the traditions, ways of life, and religious practices of local communities. This virtual journey event will begin with a screening of Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee, a 13-minute film by Diné filmmaker, activist, and scholar Len Necefer, which connects struggles to protect the sacred homelands of the Gwich’in and the Diné. Following the screening, Bernadette Demientief (Gwich’in Steering Committee) and Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, (Women of Bears Ears) will explore the lines that connect their struggles to protect sacred lands for generations to come.
About the Film
The story of unwanted energy development in the Arctic Refuge is not new – it’s a common theme that has impacted indigenous communities both in Alaska and the Lower 48. Over the last 50 years, communities in interior Alaska have been fighting a battle to protect their ancestral homelands just as communities in and around the desert southwest have been working to protect their heritage with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.
We have witnessed the impact on communities and the land as the protections for both of these places have been removed to expedite their development by extractive industries. Their stories run parallel; when the protections on these lands are removed it is the indigenous communities that are on the frontline to protect these places.
This film explores the connection of threats faced to Bears Ears National Monument and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge through stories and perspectives of the Diné (Navajo) and Gwich’in communities. Led through the eyes and experiences of Len Necefer, we’ll follow his journey in Gwichyaa Zhee (Fort Yukon) as he meets with various members of these communities who are fighting to protect their land. By sharing his own stories and mementos from home, we begin to understand how similar these two communities are, and how they’re not alone in their struggles. As we move through this story and learn about the Gwich’in people, bigger questions remain. What happens to these communities, land, and cultures they support when protection is lost? And how do we, as viewers, understand the commonalities of these struggles to value and take steps to protect our own backyard?
About the Speakers
Bernadette Demientieff (Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in) is the Executive Director of Gwich’in Steering Committee. She is the mother of 5 children and grandmother of 5 grandchildren. She is a council member for the Arctic Refuge Defense Council, and also serves as an advisory board member for NDN Collective, the Care of Creations Task Force, Native Movement Alaska, and Defend the Sacred Alaska. She is a tribal member of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government, and on the leadership council for ITR. She stands strong to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-Coastal Plain, The Porcupine Caribou Herd and the Gwich’in way of life.
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (Ute Mountain Ute) was born and raised in southwestern Colorado. She is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Towaoc and has served as a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal leadership. She has worked for Chief Dull Knife College, the Southern Ute Indian, and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribes. She is a former co-chair for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and education director for the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose. Regina is a member of Women of Bears Ears which seeks to restore Indigenous women’s matrilineal roles as decision-makers, culture bearers, and nurturers of shared ancestral lands, and of future generations. Regina has traveled extensively throughout the country sharing the Ute culture through song, dance, and presentations. Currently, she is studying towards a Master’s of Environmental Management with Western Colorado University.