‘Our voices have been heard by the U.S. President’: Gwich’in Grand Chief

In his first day in office, U.S. President Joseph Biden signed an executive order placing a temporary moratorium on drilling activity in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Grand Chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, has reclaimed his traditional Gwich’in last name of Kyikavichik. Formerly known as Ken Smith, Kyikavichik made the change official in early march. (CKLB file photo.)

The Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief says he is “ecstatic” that President Joseph Biden issued a temporary moratorium on drilling activity in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Grand Chief Ken Smith was among several Gwich’in voices, coordinated under the Gwich’in Steering Committee, to speak out about the environmental risks associated with any oil and gas activity in the coastal plains area of Alaska. 

Biden’s temporary moratorium came in his first official day in office, shortly after the Trump administration opened up plans to create a competitive oil and gas program in the Arctic.

Trump’s legislation allowed for leasing, production, development, and transportation of oil and gas in and from the coastal plain.

According to the Gwich’in Steering Committee website, the effects of drilling, mining, pipelines, and other industrial disruptions could negatively impact the natural migration patterns of the Porcupine caribou.

“They are the very essence of who we are, our culture, our history, our language is intrinsically tied to the Porcupine caribou,” Smith says. “This has been and will remain a non-negotiable for us in terms of any developments that could threaten the very existence of the caribou.”

He says all Gwich’in organizations feel as though this was a big win for them. 

“Our voices have been heard by U.S. President Joe Biden and his team, and it’s clear that he’s willing to walk the walk in terms of protecting the environment,” Smith says.

He adds, going forward he hopes a permanent ban can be issued to ensure the area remains protected.

Republican response

Republican leaders in Alaska, on the other hand, immediately expressed disappointment with the decision by the Biden administration.

On Twitter, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy wrote, “As a candidate Joe Biden campaigned on stopping oil and gas development on federal lands. Make no mistake about it, President Biden appears to be making good on his promise to turn Alaska into a large National Park.”

“I’m prepared to use every resource available to fight for Alaskans’ right to have a job, and have a future by taking advantage of every opportunity available to us.”

Smith says he is also prepared to keep fighting for his people.   

“This has been a battle that we’ve been fighting for over 30 years, and we are prepared to fight for another 30 years if that’s what it takes to get the permanent protections that are required for this vital area of North America,” he says.  

Smith adds he is optimistic permanent protections can be passed since the Democrats hold all three levels of U.S. government.

About the Author

Luke Carroll
Luke Carroll is a journalist originally from Brockville, Ont. He has previously worked as a reporter and editor in Ottawa, Halifax and New Brunswick. Luke is a graduate of Carleton University's bachelor of journalism program. If you have a story idea, feel free to send him an email at luke.carroll@cklbradio.com