Guest column: Standing in solidarity with our Gwich’in brothers and sisters

Since 1977, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been hotly contested in Congress. At the heart of the debate is the almost certain catastrophic impact on the Gwich’in people who have inhabited northeastern Alaska for centuries. The Gwich’in life and culture have traditionally been based on the Porcupine Caribou as a main source of food, tools, and clothing. Unfortunately, the Porcupine Caribou calving ground, which the Gwich’in call “The Place Where Life Begins,” is precisely where the oil companies want to drill.

While drilling for oil in a tiny area of the Refuge may not seem like much of a disturbance to outsiders, the reality is that oil production is a vast and far-reaching operation. Huge pipes must be built for transport, heavy machinery is necessary for drilling, pits for deposits of rocks must be dug, huge amounts of water must be used and if that water happens not to be nearby, a well must be drilled. All of this is required and unavoidable before any drilling can begin. It becomes apparent that when oil companies say the land won’t be scarred or that only a small area of land will be impacted, they are not speaking factually. The truth is the disastrous impacts of drilling in locations around the world are well-documented and too often painfully experienced by God’s people and God’s creation.

The first to be affected by drilling in the Refuge would be the caribou. Since Porcupine Caribou are skittish animals, any sound can frighten them. Placing huge oil drilling equipment on this sacred land could easily and permanently discourage the caribou from ever returning to the place they’ve been calving for thousands of years, devastating the size of the population, the life blood of the Gwich’in people.

Meat from the Porcupine Caribou makes up a majority of the Gwich’in diet, and should that source disappear or be depleted, the Gwich’in have no viable alternative source of sustenance. The price of food that is flown into the region is beyond prohibitive. Three bananas cost $9 and two small beef patties go for $25. The Gwich’in simply do not have the money to fill in the gaps that the disappearance of caribou would create. History tells us how their story would end from the colonization of North America and the subsequent genocide of indigenous people. We do not want to put the Gwich’in in a similar position where their livelihood, culture, and religion are under siege. We have made that grave mistake before and we are now given the chance to take a more compassionate path.

Given the dramatic decline in oil prices, drilling in the Arctic Refuge is also unsound on an economic basis. It is unclear why industry would give oil drilling serious consideration, even if the government makes major leases available in the Refuge’s coastal plain. Besides, we have developed cleaner, more efficient, and less ecologically damaging forms of energy such as solar and wind energy, and with those sources available, it is unfathomable that anyone would justify drilling in the Refuge, especially knowing it is a death certificate for the Gwich’in people.

For so little gain at so much environmental and humanitarian cost, energy extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is more than unnecessary; it is morally unacceptable. People of faith that stand for justice cannot and must not abide by it.

The faith community deeply opposes this blatant disrespect for God’s creation and God’s people. The Torah says in Numbers 35:33: “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” Drilling for oil would result in pollution of land and blood of the Gwich’in people.

The Gwich’in deserve to live the life they have enjoyed for generations. As they battle for their rights and defend their food source and culture, we are obliged to stand with them and urge that our leaders join us. Arizona’s Sen. John McCain voted against opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling in 2005, but sadly in supporting the recent Senate budget resolution has now paved the way to open a piece of the refuge to development.

We must all see our connection to the Gwich’in, know that they are part of us, and then act out of our deepest beliefs as a community and a nation to ensure that our brothers and sisters continue to thrive in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman is the spiritual leader of the Congregation Kehillah in North Scottsdale/Cave Creek. She currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix and on the Board of the Arizona Faith Network, and in 2002 was selected as an “Arizona Jewish Mother of the Year.”

By Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman, Scottsdale, Arizona

Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman is the spiritual leader of the Congregation Kehillah in North Scottsdale/Cave Creek. She currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix and on the Board of the Arizona Faith Network, and in 2002 was selected as an “Arizona Jewish Mother of the Year.”

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