Stories from the North Part 1: Arctic Village
The following are excerpts from the travel journal and sketchbook that I kept while in the Arctic on my residency with US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015. The stories are raw and unedited, giving a glimpse through my eyes, what I experienced in Arctic Village, a Gwich’in village of about 120 people separated from the southern border of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by the Chandalar River during their bi-annual Gathering, bringing together people from all over the world and Gwich’in tribes from surrounding lands to celebrate their culture and seek tangible solutions to big issues like climate change and environmental and species protection.
Flying over an intense landscape of rivers cutting deep grooves in the mountains and fanning out over lush green valleys, my heart begins to pound faster. I am remembering why I do this.
In 1971, the Gwich’in people chose to keep full title to their land (1.8 million acres) rather than participate in the Native Claims Settlement Act that paid Alaska Natives $988 million in return for giving up aboriginal rights. Today they claim inherent right to the subsistence way of life. Upon landing in Arctic Village, I was immersed in the Gwich’in bi-annual Gathering. For days on end, powerful orations filled the village. “Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around. Go forward. We have land. Land is everything.”
These are the “caribou people.” The Gwich’in subsist off of the very important Porcupine Caribou Herd, a herd of about 169,000 animals that uses the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge as their calving grounds. The Coastal Plain has been referred to for thousands of years as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit; the sacred place where life begins.
I listened to the elders discuss issues of land, resources and changing times, and I sketched their likenesses.
“This is why I travel to other places: to show people firsthand how we live here in the village. To show them how we hunt and fish and how we make our living. To demonstrate why it is so important to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou. To link the oil drilling in Prudhoe Bay with the changes in behavior of the caribou. To convince our own people that our way of life, life through the caribou, is more important than the fleeting taste of wealth that comes from oil.” ~ David Solomon
An older chief spoke about nomadic times walking along the Chandalar River from Arctic Village to Venetie in the South. To do it with an empty packsack, he said. To have it be filled with good things along the way. To rely on the land and the generosity of others. To trust.
“We listen to the animals, the land, and we live a long healthy life. We believe in the wild earth because it’s the religion we’re born with.” ~ Trimble Gilbert
The Gathering House is the porch that everyone stops at while walking through town to half a coffee and share a story. Here’s a story from Roger, my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guide, pictured above. There was a time when a group of Gwich’in went on a very long vision quest during Gathering. They were aiming to trek up to the Coastal Plain, the pale where “all life begins”, the breeding grounds of the Porcupine Caribou. They were fasting the whole time. Though they didn’t make it all the way North, they came back with stories for the village on how they were greeted by their ancestors along the trek. The ancestors thanked and honored them for what they were doing. The village received them as heroes.
Each day and night we eat caribou and moose roasted over the fire. The hunters of Arctic Village had shot seven just a couple days ago, and they were celebrated for bringing the feast to the gathering. All the meat is butchered right outside the entrance of the gathering, and there are animal parts scattered everywhere. A hoof is toted off by a scavenging dog. Knives slice through muscle. Chunks of meat are dumped into a massive boiling pot over the fire. Supplemented by sandwiches on white bread, chips, cake and fry bread. Tang, coffee, and soda wash it all down. Plastic and styrofoam cups and paper plates. Bones go in the trash: the dogs have had enough.
There is much talk about protecting land to allow the culture to live on. A banner reads Save (Be Aware Of) the Gwich’in Way of Life. Their homes are sinking into melting permafrost, their fish are poisoned or not spawning due to rising water temperatures, and the caribou migration is altered by oil drilling further north. They have been fighting the beast, and yet have built the road for the beast to walk right in.
It is a land of contrasts and complexities. Native cultures around the world are currently navigating having a foot in two worlds. Neither here nor there, tears in identity can occur. Much is to be revealed as time goes on.
“When I walk upon this land, I am walking upon the bones of a thousand generations of my ancestors.” ~ Trimble Gilbert
The Arctic loon called out hauntingly at midnight as we closed our tent flaps to shield out a still bright sun that had sunk below the nearest mountains casting a pastel pink over the land and yet kept the sky alight with blue. I thought of the immeasurable importance of wilderness and having a relationship to it. Here, in one of the wildest places on the planet, we find context and lessons for life.
Art is a power. It is an act of love. While in Arctic Village, I shared my love by unfolding a big canvas for the youngsters to paint on while the grownups were engaged in talks during Gathering. They ate it up!
Why do I create? Because in creation I find both the deepest unrest and the deepest peace. Within images I can express truth that gets muddled in words. Clarity emerges in the lines on paper or the paint on hands. Why is art important? It is a precious lens into vital issues on our planet, such as the protection of wilderness or a way of life. It grounds us back into what we are innately – creators. It sheds light on why we are here.
The moon rises as a sliver, yellow and hazy over luscious blue mountains. It is 3am, and another full day in Arctic Village comes to an end. Crawling into my tent, I reflect on its happenings: Cut apples in the kitchen, dole out paint to youngsters over a canvas, walk the dirt covered roads and remember Vicente Guerrero and Kenya, tell stories, joke with the elders, play the drum and sing at the fire for the ancestors, listen to influencers speak their truth, talk oil and taxes and the broke state of Alaska, connect with people around the world, get eaten by mosquitos, eat caribou and moose for every meal, dance, dance, dance. Over only a couple days we have all become a community. No, more: a family. Native, non-Native, native to wherever, it doesn’t matter. All here to celebrate, smile, mourn, educate and be educated, change the world perhaps.
Arctic Village Home.
I remember clearly the pressure of goodbyes upon us as we packed and shuffled our gear out to the airstrip for the next portion of the artist residency in the Arctic. Arctic Village during Gathering had been so full, and goodbyes were complimented by gift exchanges: a handbag made from lynx and muktuk (whale skin and blubber) that somehow had made its way all the way down South. Bittersweet for sure, but something big was calling….
Read “Part 2” to experience Arctic National Wildlife Refuge through the eyes of an artist.