An interview with Sarah James regarding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

photo of Sarah James

Subject: Sarah James
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
Transcriber: Patrick Hammerlund

This interview* was recorded during December, 2000 in Arctic Village, Alaska on the day of winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.

Sarah James is an elder in the Gwich'in native community of Alaska and northwestern Canada. The tribe includes approximately 8,000 members. Once a nomadic culture, the Gwich'in of today live mainly in small, remote villages. Many, including those in Arctic Village, live a largely subsistence lifestyle. The Gwich'in of Arctic Village rely heavily on the Porcupine Caribou for their survival.

Sarah is a fierce environmentalist and among the leaders in the battle to stop proposed development of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, Sarah appears in The Duncan Entertainment Group production of Rafting Alaska's Wildest Rivers (broadcast on July 1, 2001 on PBS Network). If you would like to reach Sarah James, or if you would like more information on Rafting Alaska's Wildest Rivers, please contact Bob Huck at

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

Would you talk about some of the food that is important to your people?
We use every part of the caribou and moose and every thing … Like rabbit, we use the fur … to keep my hands warm, and you renew it too. After a while it gets old and then you renew it, and you can use it for socks too. It doesn't last very long either there, because it falls apart. That's the warmest thing you can have is snowshoe rabbit fur parka, a weaved one. And then we eat the meat, we eat every part of the meat. We cook it either fried, boiled, cook it to the fire… that's really considered a good part because it tastes so tasty with that smoke and fried that way.

In the old days your people were nomadic and followed the caribou. Now that you are no longer nomadic, how do find the caribou? Can you follow it?
No, we can't follow it because jobs are here, school is here, and um, different lifestyle. And it's really expensive to go out there and follow it now. I mean just to go sheep hunting you know, last two years, I'm still paying the bills for it.

So are the people still living a subsistence lifestyle?
Yes, as best as they can. In winter, most of us burn wood and we have enough storage, food storage to live off of for now, for caribou meat and fish and all of that. And we can't go without traditional food very long. If we're out of traditional food, then we get really hungry, even tough we get the store meat and all the other Western food that we got. It's just, it just doesn't stay with you. Just like, for instance, because of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (issue), I had to be on the road most of the time, I gave up all my summer just to be out there, and that means I didn't get my fresh duck soup or, fresh meat, fresh fish run in the springtime and the falltime; I missed out on all of that. I feel like something is missing from my life, until I get back into that season. Season's have a lot of things to do with it too, because that's how we survive year-to-year. It's just something that we depend on and who we are, and other than that, you take those things away and it feels like something is missing from your life. Like one time we didn't have caribou for a long time, and Bobby went out just before Christmas and he came back with a lot of caribou. And we had all this extra food, but all they cooked was that fresh caribou. They didn't cook anything else with it, they just chowed on that fresh caribou meat. I mean, they, right now, they're ready for something fresh and just that two little caribou they just shot, even that is kinda, uh, make you come back to life again, just that. That's all they can get for this Christmas. So that's what subsistence is all about. And Uh, even though we can't practice our nomadic life, uh, we still have this, uh, the needs are still there, the urge is still there. That will never go away.

In the lower 48 a lot of people know about the refuge and wan to save the caribou, but they don't know about the Gwich'in. Which is more important to tell, the caribou story, or the Gwich'in story?
Both. Because a lot of people don't see it as a human rights issue and look at it like public interest land because it's anybody's right to save the refuge, so more and more stuff is being said about public interest land. That is for recreation reason, for scenic reason, or for the caribou, or for whatever live there. But because of the people that live near it, Kaktovik people, Inupiat people, want to see development, but Gwich'in people don't want to see development. That's not being addressed unless it's a human rights issue. And human rights issue is not addressed enough. And we have support by the tribes and the churches and special interest groups to address human rights. But, environmentalists, they address public interest land, because they can address public interest land. We address the human rights, which we have a right to. And we don't want environmentalists or anybody like that addressing human rights for us. So we never join up with Wilderness Society or Sierra Club or The Friends of the Earth, because that's not who we are. Our reason is human rights … because we've always been here, we're gonna be here, we're not leaving, we're here to stay.

This is human rights versus oil. It's not environmentalists versus oil, or native to native issue, this is human rights versus oil because Gwich'in people are here, always been here. Creator put us here to take care of this part of the world, and we're going to stay, we're not leaving. The world has to realize that we're here to stay. We have a right to say who we are and what to protect, and the kind of life we've always had. Nobody have the right to take that away from you.

And this is what the caribou is to us. We are caribou people and we survived this far because of the caribou and we are who we are because of the caribou. And we dance caribou dance and we have caribou stories and it's our clothes, it's our food. 75% of our food is wild meat, most of that is caribou. There's sheep, mountain sheep, there's fish in this valley here year round. And we depend on birds and ducks for food and uh, fish and beaver, rabbit, moose, all that. It's our subsistence way of living, it's our way of life. We can't be separated from that.

There is an Alaska coalition made up of all the environmentalist groups throughout the nation. There's 160 environmentalist organizations that have joined up to protect Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We're non-profit organization, so we can't lobby, we can educate the public. And then this tribal Government that joined up with us, we, we formed like, a human rights organization to help us on this issue. We have church, all the church signed with us. The first one was the Methodist Church, the second was the Episcopal; we're all Episcopal, us Gwich'in People, we're converted Episcopal; Anglican over in Canada, and on this site it's Episcopal. And then we also practice our traditional way of believing too, and practice and living and eat and every day life that we always did have, that we still live that life. We live in two different worlds. And we try to meet these two and we're trying to meet halfway. To be who we are today and that's what make us strong and that what make us be united. And we think that that's how we're gonna survive, and we been surviving that way. And so when we make a coalition group of people on human rights, then tribe can address human rights, special groups interests can address human rights and the churches. And that's how we got our own coalition of human rights groups and supporting us.

Is there still a lot of animosity toward white people?
We taught not to be that way. My elders tell me that I have to be forgiving. I have to be generous and sharing and that's who we are and we've always been that way. That's what make us a special people, and we're natural to that. I have to catch myself a lot of times because I got a lot of resentment, and, and which is not right. I, I, I, I do, I try to correct that.

So you have hope?
Yeah, there is hope because right now we're getting our language back in place, we've got our tribal government back in place. If we wanna get away from our culture and go into the Western World, that's our decision to make. ...We gotta learn that we can stay in two worlds and be happy. This is where the Creator put us and we are, you know, that's what we were taught, and that's who we are.