Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee: A Conversation with Co-Director Len Necefer
Indigenous communities across the United States are increasingly confronted with threats to their sovereignty and to the places they rely on for their culture and way of life. Nowhere is this threat felt more than in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A new short film, Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee, looks at the Gwich’in people’s work to protect this land and their livelihood. We interviewed Len Necefer, PhD, co-director of the film and founder of Colorado-based outdoor apparel company NativesOutdoors, to learn about why he chose to tell the story of the Gwich’in, what people get wrong about the fight to protect tribal lands and the importance of Indigenous voices in the outdoor industry.
Len, what does “the sacred place where life begins” refer to?
This is the Gwich’in phrase, “Iizhik Gwat’san Gwandaii Goodlit,” which describes the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is a place where the Porcupine caribou herd goes every year to give birth and nurse their calves. Toward the fall, when the calves are stronger, they start their migration across to Canada.
This place is now under threat as it sits just 50 to 60 miles from Prudhoe Bay, on the north shore of Alaska, where the state ships most of its oil and where a lot of the drilling is going to happen. The area disputed is believed to have the same level of oil reserves as Prudhoe Bay.
Your film, Welcome to Gwichyaa Zee, tells the story of the fight to protect these places through the eyes of the communities impacted the greatest. Why was it important to you to tell this story?
Unlike most films about the Arctic Refuge, where a lot of the focus has been on landscape and animals, this film focuses on the stories of people that live on those landscapes. The narrative is an indigenous one, told through my lens, as a Navajo person going to this area, sharing my experience about our work to protect Bears Ears and learning from the Gwich’in’s experience in protecting their lands. With this film, we wanted to provide insight into the Gwich’in’s way of life and focus on what is happening in the Arctic as a human and civil rights issue, rather than solely an environmental issue.
Trimble Gilbert, the traditional chief of Arctic Village, a Gwich’in community at the southern edge of the refuge, said, “To my people, wilderness is not a luxury or indulgence. It is a necessity.”
Part of my research as a professor at the University of Arizona answers the question of what it means to be Indigenous. There is a framework, called the “peoplehood matrix,” that outlines the four elements of Indigenous identity: sacred history, ceremonial cycle, language and place or landscape. None of these elements can exist without each other, and any impact on any of the elements will impact the others and the sphere, as a whole.
Any sort of environmental impact on the land will have direct impacts on the ceremonial cycle of the Gwich’in. It’s tied directly to the caribou and their migration, tied to food and components of identity, language and their history as a people. When talking about necessity, the Gwich’in are not just talking about food and way of life. They are also talking about their identity as a people.
What is something people misunderstand about the importance of this fight and other fights to protect tribal lands in America?
I think people view native people’s fight to protect these regions as a way for them to protect their own backyard. But in speaking to native folks, whether at Standing Rock or in the Arctic, you find that they are protecting this piece of the world to make sure other places in the world are protected, too. Native people know each piece of the puzzle plays a role in the grander scheme of things. They see how everything is interconnected. There are impacts at a local level, but it’s not just the Porcupine caribou being impacted; there are 150 species that nest in the Refuge and then fly across continents. They are part of ecosystems far away across the world. Gwich’in see this connection—it’s not just about protecting their backyard.
You are actively involved in protecting Bears Ears. How is the Gwich’in’s fight to protect the Refuge different from your fight there?
Stakes are a lot higher with what is happening in the Refuge. These communities so directly depend on the land for food. Sixty to 70 percent of their food comes from the land. Any impact will directly affect their abilities to feed their families. Bears Ears is important, but the stakes aren’t that high. That was a deeper learning for me.
The film centers the story around Gwich’in families. Why was it important to you to tell that story through their voices?
We wanted to show a community that has been fighting for a long time to have their voices heard. We wanted to ensure we made a product the community felt proud of and felt ownership of. A big part of that was working directly with tribal governments and asking for permission. Another piece was giving the tribal government veto power over the story and the project itself. It was important to us to avoid extractive storytelling—dropping in to a community, telling a story, then leaving. We wanted to break down the power dynamics between storytellers and the community and build a more equitable form of storytelling led by the community.
In the film, you go hunting with the Gwich’in. How would that be affected by opening up the Refuge to drilling?
Hunting is like going to work for the Gwich’in. Mike Peter (second chief of Gwichyaa Zhee) invited me to join him looking for moose on the Yukon River—he called it “getting fresh air.” I have hunted before and knew how to operate a gun, I knew about gun safety, how to shoot. But I had no idea where to look for moose, where to look for different signs.
The Yukon River moves and changes a lot. It’s very flat, sometimes its branches get cut off and will become lakes. After a few hundred years, the lakes fill in and become grassy fields, which is where the moose hang out. In some areas, the moose will cross the Yukon, which is amazing because it’s a huge river!
A lot of the conversations we had there were focused on what caribou were doing, what the moose were doing. This was one of the big similarities I noticed between myself and the Gwich’in. Back home we talk about when certain animals are migrating back, when certain plants start appearing. We don’t just talk about the weather, but about what other animals are doing, and this reflects a deeper understanding of people’s experience of living in these places.
What was it like for the Gwich’in to have you there?
It was inspiring for them to see someone like myself from Navajo country, 4,000 miles away, caring about this issue. Living in a place like rural Alaska, they often feel invisible and it’s hard to see the type of support that exists to protect these areas. I saw some of the older folks feeling inspired to continue that work. That there are younger people far away who care about this issue and are willing to help gives them hope.
Since we started screening the movie, we’ve asked audiences to write messages of support for the Gwich’in on film posters, and we’ve been sending them back up there to show them that people support what they are doing.
What can people do to help the Gwich’in protect the Refuge?
The Gwich’in Steering Committee is leading this fight and they are always looking for funding. They are the advocate and voice of the Gwich’in and any monetary support is greatly appreciated.
Also, there is a bill in Congress right now, H.R. 1146, the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act. What this bill would do is overturn the legislation that authorized opening the arctic for development. People can call senators and representatives and voice their support for the bill. This bill might be voted on in June or July. Right now, the administration is trying to condense a six to seven year-long leasing process to less than two years in order to get this done before the 2020 elections. The hope is if we can create as many roadblocks to that happening, Congress could overturn this.
Your own work with NativesOutdoors celebrates Indigenous storytellers, designers, photographers and outdoor athletes. Why was it important for you to show that point of view?
The outdoor industry, in a large way, is a big voice in combating climate change. But much of the industry is built on land which was stolen from native people, and at the same time has a lack of representation from native people within the industry. All these places where we spend time outdoors were stewarded by native people. There is an opportunity and responsibility to write the story the right way, and the outdoor industry can be the advocate to make that happen.
I started NativesOutdoors to ensure native people have a voice, and to engage stereotypes around native people as burdens to society, as lacking talent, as drug abusers. This was my way of writing our own story. Our identities are tied to the landscape—in so many ways it’s a natural fit. We look at this industry as a space we belong, and we own.
Anywhere we look in the world, native people are leading the fights to protect areas under threat from extractive industries and climate change. Indigenous people make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but we protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. Our identity is tied to these places. Protecting the landscape is protecting ourselves.
We are trying to create and elevate role models for our community, who young people can look up to and be inspired by. One of the things I dealt with growing up was that a lot of the older generations went to residential schools and dealt with serious trauma. I didn’t have role models. We are trying to fill that gap—to inspire youth to get outside, be proud of their culture and take care of the land.
View the full film at Patagonia Action Works
Update 10/14: On September 12, the House of Representatives voted in favor of keeping oil and gas development out of the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain. That same Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management released its final environmental statement for oil and gas drilling which allows oil and gas lease sales to begin in the coastal plain.