PROPHET OF THE ALASKAN WILDERNESS
An Interview with Father Trimble Gilbert
by Ruth Goring
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is under threat. The Bush administration has repeatedly introduced regulations and legislation riders that would open up this region of Alaska to oil and natural-gas drilling. So far the Senate has resisted, but administration pressure is ongoing, in spite of the fact that the coastal plain of the refuge constitutes the only remaining 5 percent of Alaska's northern slope that is not already open to drilling.What's more, a 1998 U.S. Geological Survey reported that drilling in this area was likely to provide no more than a six-month supply of oil for the United States. The refuge, which has been called "America's Serengeti," shelters musk oxen, polar bears, wolves, migratory birds, caribou, and hundreds of other species. Drilling on its coastal plain would damage the calving grounds of the Porcupine River herd of caribou, on which the indigenous Gwich'in nation depends.The Gwich'in—numbering about 7,000—are part of the Athabascan peoples of eastern Alaska and northwestern Canada.
Some call the administration's proposal an expression of environmental racism—a disregard for the habitat and health of people of color. But the Gwich'in are speaking up for the protection of their land and its wildlife. Trimble Gilbert, age 68, lives in Arctic Village (population 150), which lies on the Yukon River just above the Arctic Circle, 200 miles north of Fairbanks. A Gwich'in tribal leader who is a leading voice in the opposition to drilling, Gilbert is also a musician, a great-grandfather, a hunter and protector of caribou, and an Episcopal priest.
Why do the Gwich'in people care so much about the caribou?
Trimble Gilbert: We have a special relationship with the Porcupine River herd of caribou. In the spring the herd migrates north through our land, over the Porcupine River to the north shore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In July and August the caribou return, and people gather to hunt and share the meat. Traditionally our elders have known through dreams when the caribou are coming.The weather also signals their coming. When I was young my father used to sit outside for hours with a spotting scope, watching the caribou's movements. As old people lie dying, in their moments of consciousness they often begin talking about the caribou. And some caribou come close to the village at those times.There is a mutual, mystical connection between us. My grandmother had a similar connection to the timber wolf. Somehow they knew each other.When she was dying, a wolf howled near the village for a long time. It's part of the Gwich'in connection to the land. The caribou are our main source of food.When we have to be away in the city, our spirit becomes weak. We need caribou meat, we need fish, we need to be in our land. Farther south in Fort Yukon, people catch salmon and beaver, and in other areas the main animal is moose.We sometimes trade caribou for these other meats. Sometimes we have suffered famines, with no caribou for several years. Then our people had to move to Fort Yukon, where residents shared their food with us.The same happens when they run low on food; we help each other.
How did Christianity come to your region?
TG: The gospel came in by dog team when an English Anglican minister was sent from Canada in the 1840s. He visited many communities, spreading news about Christ, baptizing, and celebrating Holy Communion in a tent set up in the woods. William Lolia was the first Gwich'in ordained a deacon; he was based in Fort Yukon. Albert Trit was another church leader who taught his own people. He would come to a community to do ministry even when the temperature was -70º F. People would travel long distances for church, with snowshoes and dog sleds. The influx of Europeans increased greatly in 1898, with the Gold Rush to the area around Dawson City. These outsiders brought diseases such as tuberculosis and the flu.The Episcopalians stayed with us and comforted us with the gospel. Fr. Gilbert uses a stole and altar cloth made of beaded caribou skin which many women donated their time to make. The Anglican Church helped to build the first hospital in our region. Our culture anticipated the gospel in many ways. Our oral tradition taught that one great Being had created the world. There was also a story of a great flood and other stories paralleling those of the Old Testament. Our moral teachings paralleled the Ten Commandments. Somehow we had always known that Someone was in charge.We had been aware of the existence of deep evil, too. We had a story about a person who would work with animals and have a special bond with them. It was like the Jews' anticipation of the Messiah.When we heard about Jesus, we recognized him as this Unnamed One. God had been with our people all along. That doesn't mean things had been perfect. Before the gospel arrived we had conflicts with each other.The gospel brought a means of peace. It taught us about reconciliation. We have images of the baby Jesus as a Gwich'in child in Alaska, to show that Christ belongs to us, too. The prayer book is now available in the Gwich'in dialect.
PRISM: What was the traditional Gwich'in way of life, and how has it been changing?
TG: In the old days many people lived to be 100 or even 120.They worked very hard; some slept only two or three hours a night. Some couples had 18 or 19 children. We used to be much more migratory.We couldn't stay in one place too long, because the caribou migrated and their routes changed. The hunters would go ahead of the others and break the trail. The women would tear down the camp and collect wood with the little ones.With all the movement, they had to constantly repair their caribou-skin moccasins! We always sought the Holy Spirit's guidance on our long journeys. There is only a short growing season along the Yukon River farther south. People in that area grow vegetables like potatoes and cabbage. In the Arctic Circle, though, we have permafrost, and the soil is not good for gardening. We had two political parties, which corresponded to two main bloodlines. Marriages were always across party lines. There were medicine men or shamans who did traditional curing of people's illnesses. Used in the right way, their practice helped people. But there was a dark side, too; used wrongly, the shamans' practices brought evil. Since about 1960, life has been easier, but it isn't healthy for us. Our life span is shorter now.
What has the opening of the Alaska Oil Pipeline meant to your people?
TG: The pipeline was started in 1974-75. It was like a war, with planes flying over all the time. People started hunting indiscriminately, and the moose population declined. We hoped that the oil would help our people—many did get jobs, and some are still making good money from oil—but the pipeline has also brought alcohol, drugs, and crime.With electricity came TV, and kids are learning both good and bad things from it. One of the worst things is gun violence. The educational system taught our children to read and write in English, which is good. But it excluded the elders, so that their wisdom was in danger of being forgotten. We now bring in the youth to listen to our annual gathering of Gwich'in village elders.We encourage each other to hold on to our traditional ways and to abandon alcohol. John Fredson is an example to other young Gwich'in. He attended an Episcopal school, then went away to college. After graduating, he returned home and began working to help his people claim their land. All Alaskans now receive an annual check through revenue sharing [a program to encourage residence in Alaska—ministry. Porcupine River caribou. For us this area is so sacred that we avoid setting foot on it.We don't want to see it become another Prudhoe Bay, where drilling has led to many oil spills each year and pollution of air and land has destroyed thousands of acres of animal habitat.
What can outsiders do to help?
TG: We need help from everybody.The voice of young people is especially important to speak on behalf of future generations. Educating the general public is just as significant as contacting members of Congress to let them know you want the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be protected. The whole world needs to hear:Too much human activity is damaging the earth. Our land is one small place we're trying to make a model for others, a place where wildlife, land, and water are protected. One of our goals is to be able to drink water from the Yukon River—we haven't been able to do that for a long time now.We pray for the land and the caribou. I pray a blessing on the water of the Yukon, for the restoration of its purity. The land is holy, and we all need it for our healing.
Ruth Goring is a poet, editor, and activist; her book of poems Yellow Doors was published recently (WordFarm, 2004). She is codirector of Chicagoans for a Peaceful Colombia (www.chicagoans.net). Trimble Gilbert can be contacted at P.O. Box 22006, Arctic Village, AK 99722.