SHEENJEK RIVER II: A GWICH'IN HOMELAND | Oil and The Caribou | 2002 | 68x86 inches

Framing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as “the last American frontier untouched by man” is a myth. The Sheenjek River, one of the three designated “Wild” rivers in the Arctic Refuge, has been immortalized with the biological expedition of 1956 led by legendary biologist Olaus Murie. This expedition later led to the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960. Sarah James, a Gwich'in elder and a leading Native American activist and a dear friend shared with me that “Sheenjek” in Gwich'in means “salmon river”, and she shared with me a map (hand drawn) that shows numerous Gwich'in families, including Sarah James‚ family, lived along this river until they were encouraged to take up village life in Arctic Village as recently as in mid-twentieth century. The conservation movement has obliterated the Gwich'in history of the “salmon river”. American land conservation movement from its inception separated “man” from “nature”, which has proven to be cruel to the Native American people. The American public was told that areas of the Yellowstone Plateau “have never been trodden by human footsteps”. On the contrary, the Crow, the Shoshone, the Bannock, the Blackfeet, and the Nez Perce - five tribes hunted in these areas. The first National Park was established - the Yellowstone National Park. The United States military was called in to ensure safety for the tourists from the threat of the Native American people. We protected the land from the people of the land. Today the Gwich'in Steering Committee and the conservation organizations are working collaboratively to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge against oil and gas development. However, the gap between the two conceptions of nature and culture remain vast:

I learned by living out in the wilderness” - Sarah James, 2001

man himself is a visitor who does not remain” [in a wilderness] - Howard Zahniser, The Wilderness Act, 1964


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