Gwich'in Nation blind-sided by Norton visit
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JUNE 15, 2001

The Gwich'in Nation is "scrambling" to receive Secretary of Interior Gale Norton during her visit to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge next week, a spokesperson for the tribe's steering committee said on Thursday.

"We think its a good thing that she's coming because she refused to meet with us the last time she was here," said Faith Gemmill. "I hope she really listens and hears our concerns."

But since Norton's visit to Arctic Village, a Gwich'in community located just off the southern border of ANWR, falls just two days before a major tribal summit, Gemmill criticized the Secretary for not consulting with tribal leaders beforehand to make better arrangements. The village council learned of her visit late Wednesday, a trip Interior officials told Indianz.Com was in the works for a week.

"It would have been better if she came during our gathering," said Gemmill of the four-day event which begins next Thursday. "Instead, she's going to show up when none of [our leaders] are there [at Arctic Village] yet."

For Norton, the trip is her second to the 19.5 million-acre refuge whose 1.5 million-acre coastal plain has been targeted for oil and gas development. In March, Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) led a small delegation to ANWR's North Slope, where they met with leaders of Kaktovik, an Inupiat Eskimo village whose residents support drilling.

"When I was there the last time, I said I would go back," said Norton in an interview in her office yesterday.

Her primary goal will be to observe the types of drilling technologies which have been promoted as environmentally responsible. Ice roads built in the winter will have melted away, she hopes, proving to herself and others that development can occur with minimal impacts.

But she'll also spend a few hours with Gwich'in Athabaskans, who fear drilling will destroy the caribou herd on which they depend. "I am going to be spending some time hearing the other side of the issue," she acknowledged.

With the 10,000-member Gwich'in Nation dispersed among 15 villages in Alaska and Canada, however, Norton will only be meeting with a small tribal contingent next week. Although Arctic Village is the site of the tribe's gathering -- which was called by Gwich'in youth to address the threat of drilling -- transportation and logistical difficulties are preventing other village leaders from rearranging their trips to coincide with the visit.

"At the last minute, we're scrambling to bring some people early but people can't change their plans," argued Gemmill.

That doesn't mean Norton won't be welcomed warmly by the Gwich'in, though. Arctic Village has a population of about 125, said Gemmill, and the council has begun preparations for a traditional feast, which will include moose: five have been shot around the village recently.

The caribou hunting season won't start again until this fall but some meat might be brought from Canada and offered to the Secretary, said Gemmill. The village's traditional dancers are also planning a ceremony for Norton, she added.

Democrats in control of the Senate have proclaimed President Bush's push to open ANWR for development a dead proposal.

Relevant Links:
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
Oil Issues in ANWR, US Fish and Wildlife -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site -

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