WASHINGTON – Backed up by Native American leaders from across the country, Alaska’s Gwich’in people assailed the Bush administration Feb. 11 for scheming to turn over to greedy oil companies their ancestral lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

A standing room crowd packed a conference room in the Methodist Building here as the Gwich’in leaders appealed for an outpouring to block the plan to drill in the 1.5 million-acre ANWR, a threat to the calving grounds of the 130,000 caribou in the Porcupine River herd that are the mainstay of their diet and culture.

Drilling in the ANWR was high on the list of priorities set out by Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Policy Task Force. Bush and Cheney have invoked “executive privilege” to keep the proceedings of the Energy Task Force secret in the current Senate hearings on Enron.

“Our ancestors have lived with the caribou for generations beyond time,” said Jonathan Solomon, chairman of the Gwich’in Steering Committee (GSC).

GSC spokesperson Sarah James added, “The coastal plain is vital to our caribou. We call their calving ground ‘The Place Where Life Begins,’ and we cannot allow it to be ruined by oil drilling.”

James opened the conference by singing a prayer song about protecting the millions of endangered wildlife that thrives in the ANWR.

Present in the crowd were leaders of many Native American, human rights, environmental and religious groups.

Dune Lankard, a commercial fisherman and executive director of the Eyak Preservation Council on Alaska’s Prince William Sound, said crude oil from the Exxon Valdez spill continues to foul the once pristine waterway 13 years after the disaster.

“Enron and the Bush administration are creating their energy plan behind closed doors with no transparency,” he said. “We should be able to pull the plug on that plan and start over. We need to dream big and take control of this energy question. Oil companies are the highest subsidized, most profitable, least taxed of any corporations.”

Instead of bowing to their greed, he said, Congress should approve a plan like California’s, which reduced energy consumption 15 percent through energy conservation.

Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) based in Bemidji, Minnesota, said, “Bush’s energy plan does not provide homeland security to the Gwich’in … The plan is at the expense of the human rights of Indigenous peoples, not only the Gwich’in, but the Western Shoshone Nation in Nevada, who are opposed to the U.S. government’s and the nuclear industry’s planning to use Yucca Mountain as a dump site for this country’s high level nuclear waste.”

He urged an outpouring of solidarity “to stop this axis of evil – oil industries and governments – who work together, expanding their oil frontier, destroying forests, wetlands, coastal plains, habitat, water quality, and are being a factor in climate change and global warming.

The American public must stop this act of colonial terrorism by Bush and Cheney against a people that just want to be left alone to live in peace.”

Robby Romero, leader of the rock band Red Thunder, said he had visited the Gwich’in lands on the Arctic North Slope.

He blasted the right-wing dominated Congress for its Patriot Energy Act, which includes drilling in the ANWR as a main provision. “They are doing a snow job on the American people with this act that threatens our people. It has nothing to do with ‘national security.’ This act is a crime,” Romero said.

Chuck Burrows, leader of a Native Hawaiian environmental group, put beautiful leis around the necks of many in the crowd. He said he has appealed to Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka, a Democrat, to reverse his support for drilling in the ANWR.

Jackie Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said it is “lack of economic opportunity” that forces indigenous peoples sometimes to take positions inconsistent with their cultures and long-term economic self-interests.

“We still struggle with the lack of jobs,” she said. “I grew up in a subsistence culture like many others here.”

The NCAI strongly supports the struggle of the Gwich’in people to stop the oil drilling and protect their ancestral lands.

Pat Sweetsir, a Tanana chief and leader of a consortium of 42 Alaska tribes, pointed out that 95 percent of Alaska’s arctic north slope is open for drilling, with hundreds of spills severely damaging the permafrost. He debunked the image of the oil corporations as benefactors.

“Even though the Prudhoe Bay pipeline runs through their land,” he said, “a gallon of gasoline costs $4 and a gallon of heating oil costs $3, highest in the nation.”