Bishops voice support for Gwich’in people in Alaska

By Mike Patterson
Posted Jul 12, 2018

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] Three days ago, Native Alaskan Bernadette Demientieff appeared at a joint session of the 79th General Convention and spoke about the destruction of the Gwich’in way of life, now threatened by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

On July 12, the House of Bishops received “with open and broken hearts the witness of Bernadette Demientieff to the struggle and plight of the Gwich’in people” by unanimously passing Resolution X023.

The Gwich’in “have been imperiled by the threat of drilling in the ‘Sacred Place Where Life Begins’” on the coastal plains of the wildlife refuge, the resolution said. In approving the resolution, the bishops also affirmed the Episcopal Church’s “historic solidarity with the Gwich’in people in opposing any drilling” in the refuge.

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

Demientieff spoke on July 10 during one of three TEConversations held at joint sessions of General Convention, each focusing a specific priority: racial reconciliation, evangelism and care of creation.

“We are not asking for jobs, not asking for schools, we are asking for the respect to live as we always have and keep our identity as Gwich’in,” she said in her appearance before the House of Bishops and House of Deputies.

To the Gwich’in, the refuge is sacred. Their existence has for centuries depended on the Porcupine caribou, whose calving ground lies within the refuge’s coastal plain.

Energy companies view the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, particularly its 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, as a potential oil and natural gas bonanza. This conflict has fueled for more than 30 years a contentious debate over whether this coastal plain should be opened to oil drilling or kept as unspoiled habitat.

In December 2017, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans opened the refuge to oil exploration. In April this year, a first step was taken toward allowing drilling.

Even in times of food shortage and starvation, the Gwich’in haven’t gone into coastal plain, which they consider “the sacred place where life begins,” said Demientieff. After high school, she drifted away from her Gwich’in identity, only to recover it later in life and use her voice to speak for future generations and the animals that cannot speak for themselves.

The resolution, proposed by Bishop Wendell Gibbs of Michigan, also asked Episcopalians to “use prayer, advocacy, public witness and legal means to prevent the desecration of ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Begins’” and the destruction of the Porcupine caribou herd and the Gwich’in people.

– Mike Patterson is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. He is a member of ENS General Convention reporting team and can be reached at