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The Misguided Concept of 'Wilderness' Comes at the Expense of Indigenous Peoples

Trump's tax bill could open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Julian Brave NoiseCat

Julian Brave NoiseCat

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Image: Steven Chase, US Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

President Trump and Congress are a few meetings and a signature away from passing legislation that will open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the ancient homeland of the Iñupiat and Gwich’in Alaska Native people—to oil drilling. The deal, arranged to secure Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s vote for tax reform, doubles as an accounting gimmick to pay for massive tax cuts for billionaires and corporations.

But beyond the Beltway, the fight to control the fate of the refuge is a referendum on one of the West’s oldest philosophical ideas: the wilderness, a concept that negates Indigenous experience and has outlived its usefulness. The Arctic is not an empty landscape to be filled with meaning and protected or conquered by outsiders, as this concept suggests. It is an Indigenous homeland caught in the jaws of big oil and its dangerous byproducts: environmental degradation and climate change.

As an idea, the wilderness has led a double life. An older tradition views the wilderness as a desolate wasteland, the frontline in an unending struggle of Man against Nature, pitting empires, nations, and settlers—the assumed standard bearers of civilization—against Indigenous communities, the barbaric denizens of savagery, according to this fable.

As Trump and Congress open the Arctic refuge to drilling, the shortcomings of wilderness politics have been laid bare

A more recent tradition sees the same untamed expanse in a romantic light—as something to be protected and preserved precisely because it remains an untrammeled Eden. This repositioning, central to the environmental and conservation movements, was the founding idea behind the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the so-called “last great wilderness”—established in 1960.

“This area… will become an Arctic Wildlife Range… so that one great representative unspoiled piece of arctic wilderness can be kept as it is, for basic scientific research and for recreation and inspiration for everyone who cares enough about untouched country to come visit and leave it without the marks of man upon it,” wrote refuge founder Margaret Murie in her 1962 memoir Two in the Far North.

The wilderness is a durable heirloom that has endured at the expense of Indigenous communities for centuries. It is a notion that progressives and environmentalists ought to rethink in the face of climate change and a globally resurgent Indigenous rights movement.

Despite invisibility in the public imagination, the Indigenous of the far north have built remarkable and resilient circumpolar societies. A millennium ago, ancestors of the present-day Iñupiat and Inuit emerged out of what is now western Alaska with technologies finely tuned to flourish in the Arctic, inventing skin-covered boats like kayaks and umiaks to navigate summer sea ice and engineering harpoons to hunt massive bowhead whales. Within a few centuries, their relations stretched from present-day Alaska to Greenland, where they encountered and outlasted the Vikings in an often-overlooked episode of colonial failure and Indigenous resilience generations before Columbus.

Read More: Indigenous Peoples Will Shape a More Just and Sustainable Future for Canada

Indigenous strength endures in the Arctic to this day. There, the first people of the north have been some of the most successful advocates for Indigenous self-determination and rights in the world. Across the region, Indigenous groups have secured or are negotiating self-government over vast swaths of territory. While the battle over the Arctic refuge rages in Alaska, the Gwich’in Tribal Council is finalizing their own land claim and self-government agreement on the Canadian side of the border.

These are not absent people. They are global actors, whose voices we ignore at our own peril. Their enduring presence should render absurd folksy notions of “wilderness.”

But so too should the climate crisis. After all, on a planet superheated by fossil fuels, there can be no far-off land untouched by industry. This is especially true in the Arctic, which is warming at a rate almost twice the global average and where climate change is already etching permanent and devastating changes into the landscape.

In our planet-sized hot house, governed by oil-guzzling lunatics eager to enrich their donors, it is perhaps only natural to desire escape—to cling to comforting bedtime stories passed down through the generations.

But as Trump and Congress open the Arctic refuge to drilling, the shortcomings of wilderness politics have been laid bare.

In the Arctic and beyond there is another, older, and perhaps more powerful vision that the next generation would be wise to engage in. It’s the fight for people and planet against power and profit—a vision that begins with a simple truth: Indigenous people are still here, still strong, and still fighting.

Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St'at'imc) is a policy analyst at 350.org by day and writer by night. His work regularly appears in The Guardian and other publications.

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