Gwich’in Women Fight to Preserve the Arctic Refuge From Drilling

Bernadette Demientieff is a member of the Gwich’in community, and her ancestors have lived in Alaska for thousands of years. Over the last 30 years, her people have been fighting to protect a portion of their home in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), where oil companies have been trying to drill.

Demientieff is one of the subjects in a new 15-minute documentary called “The Refuge,” commissioned by the apparel company Patagonia. “Some people would call it activism, but we’re just trying to protect our way of life,” says Demientieff in the film. ”We are raised to protect the area. To us, it’s not work, it’s our livelihood, it’s who we are.”

The Gwich’in depend on the caribou that migrate through the ANWR. As Demientieff states in the film: ”Our fate is tied to the health and well being of the Porcupine caribou herd. We’ve had this spiritual relationship for thousands of years.”

Part of the ANWR is calving grounds for Porcupine caribou herd. Every year, up to 40,000 calves are born there and the Gwich’in people feel a spiritual connection to them, and a duty to protect them.

The History of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

ANWR covers more than 19 million acres and is one of the last intact ecosystems in the world. It is home to Alaska Natives, including the Gwich’in and Inupiat, along with 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species and more than 200 migratory bird species.

The ANWR area was originally protected by President Eisenhower in 1960. In 1980, Congress expanded the areas designated as “wilderness,” but left a subsection – known as the “1002 area” — without added protection. Ever since, the area has been under pressure from oil companies who want to open the area up for drilling.

“The Refuge,” created by filmmakers Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson, opens with clips of men in suits in Washington D.C. proclaiming that it is their duty to extract oil from the “1002″ section of ANWR.


Rep. Don Young on drilling in ANWR  |  Image credit: screenshot from The Refuge

“I know what I’m talking about,” says Rep. Don Young of the House Natural Resources Committee in a clip shown in the film. “The Arctic Plain is really nothing. …It is not the heart. The reality is this area should be drilled.” 

The scene then switches to beautiful shots of Alaska, and viewers hear the voices of two Gwich’in women who explain their decades-long fight. “What we’re up against is a mentality that puts money above everything else,” says Demientieff.


Portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge |   Photo Credit: Screenshot from The Refuge

We All Suffer When We Are Disconnected From Nature

Demientieff reflects on her own struggles before working to protect the ANWR. “The Western world really took a huge impact on a lot of us.” She fell into despair at what people were trying to do to her land and culture, and entered a very dark period after her brother committed suicide in 2006. She tells the filmmakers that she drank every day and didn’t take good care of her children.

But she saved herself by working to preserve the caribou and the refuge. “When times get hard for me, I remember that I have a whole nation of people that are depending on me, so giving up is not an option,” she says in the film. “I want to be able to tell my kids that I’ve done everything I could for them.” 

Creating Documentary Magic

Filmmakers Jablonski and Hudson explained to Care2 how they approached the documentary and how they connected with the Gwich’in women in the film: “When you have a genuine interest in the people and their struggles, you can build a closer relationship with them. They know that you want to see them succeed, and this allows them to be honest,” explained Hudson. “Of course,” he added, “these are two exceptional women to begin with.”

Jablonski elucidated that, “What we’re trying to do is to create a space where people can let themselves shine through. Above all, we want to create documentary magic.”

As viewers witness the struggles of the Gwich’in people told through first-hand stories, they are drawn into understanding the deeply spiritual beliefs that sustain these people, and how devastating, even fatal, it would be if they lost their way of life. You can watch the full documentary below. 

Take Action!

Care2, Patagonia and the Alaska Wilderness League are standing in solidarity with the Gwich’in people to prevent the Arctic Refuge from being exploited. 

If you agree that we must protect the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling, please join over 70,000 activists and sign the petition asking Congress to designate the Coastal Plain of the Refuge as Wilderness.

Photo Credit: Screenshot from "The Refuge"


Lisa M
Lisa M7 months ago

Thanks to them.

Lisa M
Lisa M7 months ago

Thanks to them

Peggy B
Peggy B7 months ago

Signed petition.

Peggy B
Peggy B7 months ago


Anne F
Anne F7 months ago

Totally excellent to find you writing about the people and the need to protect the calving grounds. I am fortunate that I met with several activists in real life this week - inspiring.

Joy T
Joy T7 months ago

Already S. & S.!

Joanne p
Joanne p7 months ago

support the poles

Teresa W
Teresa W7 months ago

signed with hope

Lorraine Andersen
Lorraine Andersen7 months ago

Way to go ladies. Yours state has some of the few remaining places that are untouched by man, where wildlife can live like its supposed to. Lets hope we can keep it that way.

Justyna L
Justyna L7 months ago