Kaktovik tribe says Biden didn’t reach out before agreement with Canada on Arctic refuge caribou

A polar bear walks along the edge of Kaktovik, the only village within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The Native Village of Kaktovik is speaking out against the Biden administration, claiming their tribe wasn’t consulted about an agreement President Biden made with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regarding protection of the Porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week, in a joint statement with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Joe Biden pledged to “help safeguard the Porcupine caribou herd calving grounds that are invaluable to the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit peoples’ culture and subsistence.”

The herd’s migration takes them through both Canada and the United States.

It’s the latest in a series of moves from the Biden administration to stop oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Shortly after taking office, Biden placed a halt on lease sales in the refuge.

Eddie Rexford Sr. is the president for Native Village of Kaktovik, the only Iñupiat tribe located within the refuge. He said they weren’t consulted by the Biden administration before the announcement.

Despite their opposition, Rexford said the tribe is committed to protecting subsistence resources.

“We certainly like to protect our homelands also, but we want to utilize the natural resources that our creator provided to us,” Rexford said. “Oil and gas, so we can get use the natural gas to get away from using diesel.”

Rexford went on to say that Biden’s actions run counter to his recent memorandum to respect tribal sovereignty and self-governance.

“He promises to work with the tribes and the Native groups in Alaska, and it’s not coming to fruition to our community and tribe,” Rexford said.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on July 3, 2019. The Gwich’in live outside of the refuge but harvest caribou from the Porcupine Herd, which breeds in the refuge. (Danielle Brigida/Creative Commons)

Rexford said the tribe had successes with the Trump administration and former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. He’s hopeful that, if confirmed, Biden’s Interior nominee Deb Haaland, of the Laguna Pueblo people, will make more efforts to work with the tribe.

“Have her come to our community to meet with our folks, to let her know that we live here, and there’s no Gwich’in homelands here in the refuge, like it’s being purported in the news nationally, internationally and statewide,” Rexford said.

The Gwich’in are an Alaska Native people who reside primarily in the Yukon-Koyukuk region in Interior Alaska. The Inuvialuit are a First Nations people from Northwest Canada. Both oppose opening the refuge to drilling.

Beyond the agreement with Canada last week, the Biden administration has not made any concrete plans to address how they will safeguard the caribou herd.

This is the second scuffle Kaktovik has had with the Biden administration in recent weeks. Last month, the local Alaska Native corporation Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation was informed by the Interior department they missed a deadline to do oil exploration in ANWR this winter. The corporation says the federal Fish and Wildlife Service held up the process, resulting in the deadline passing.

Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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