ARCTIC VILLAGE - Gwich'in Athabascan Indians and their environmentalist allies gathered over the weekend for panel discussions on protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development.
"I hope the people in Congress - and especially (Interior) Secretary (Gale) Norton - get the message that this is one fight they are not going to win," said Steve Ginnis, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Ginnis' words drew cheers and applause Saturday from the more than 100 people who assembled for the Gwich'in Gather 2001 in Arctic Village, a remote village nearly 300 miles north of Fairbanks.
The meeting was called to gather strength and discuss issues in light of President Bush's recent push to open ANWR's coastal plain to oil drilling.
The Gwich'in Athabascans of northeast Alaska and northwest Canada fear the development would harm the Porcupine caribou herd, the core of their subsistence traditions.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton visited Arctic Village last week and met with the Gwich'in. But Norton later reaffirmed her position that the drilling is America's best interest and can be done without harm to the caribou.
Norton also said Gwich'in interests must be weighed against the future of all of America's children and their need to have heat in their homes and jobs in a prosperous economy.
The Gwich'in in Arctic Village say their fight is on behalf of the entire world's future.
"This is human rights versus oil," said Sarah James of Arctic Village. "That's all it is."
Mark MacDonald, the Episcopal bishop of Alaska, said that he has been sharply criticized for his vocal support of the Gwich'in fight to prevent oil drilling in ANWR. But it is more than just a political issue, he said.
"It is a spiritual, ethical, and human rights issue of the first importance," MacDonald said.
"There is a lot more at stake here than what happens to the Gwich'in. This is an issue that is going to define how the U.S. and the other world bodies deal not just with indigenous people but with themselves ... what kind of life they are going to have for their children," he said.
Arctic Village tribal chief Evon Peter said the caribou are the Gwich'in's 'spiritual food."
"We, as indigenous people, have a right to continue our language and our culture, and to live where we are happy," Peter said.
Instead of looking to drill in ANWR, the nation needs better energy planning and to deal with "a more fundamental issue of over-consumption of energy," Peter said.
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