Protecting the ‘Sacred Place where Life Begins’: Bernadette Demientieff and ‘Freedom to Be’

Editor’s Note: The Center for Earth Ethics stands with the Gwich’in Nation as they the decision of President Biden and Secretary of the Interior Haaland to protect “the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—land sacred to the Gwich’in and the birthing grounds to the Porcupine Caribou Herd.”

CEE was honored to welcome Gwitch’in Steering Committee President, Bernadette Demientieff to share remarks in the Center’s first ‘Freedom to Be’ event discussing the rights of Indigenous People’s to practice their traditional ways, including spiritual traditions integrally connected with their ancestral homelands. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Ahmed Shaheed, offered the keynote address.

Please take a few moments to listen to Bernadette Demientieff and her description of the Gwich’in relationship to these territories. Her full remarks are below.  You can also find the Gwich’in Steering Committee’s Press Release here.  

We invite you to follow the work of this series and join CEE for future events.  A complete recording of ‘Freedom to Be’ can be found here.  

The Center for Earth Ethics is committed to listening to the voices of Indigenous wisdom throughout the world and gives gratitude to all those who have shared their wisdom with us since 2014.  We honor and mark this Indigenous Peoples’ Day of 2023 with you. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Bernadette DemientieffGood afternoon. My name is Bernadette Demientieff, and I’m the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which was founded in 1988, by the elders and chiefs of the Gwich’in nation of Alaska and Canada. I am here on behalf of the Gwich’in nation at the direction of my elders to share how extremely important our sacred lands are that resides in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

For over 40,000 years, we migrated with the caribou. We always fell short from going into the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known to everybody else as an arctic refuge. But for my people, it is called Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, “the sacred place where life begins.” 

Since time immemorial, we have had a cultural and spiritual connection to the Porcupine Caribou herd. This area is so much more than a piece of land, or a piece of land with oil underneath. It is our entire being. It  is so sacred that we do not step foot there. In 1988, at the first Gwich’in gathering that was held in over 150 years, the Christian nation of Alaska and Canada gathered in Article village. And they gave us three directions. And that was to go out and tell the world that we are here to do this work in a good way, and not to compromise our position. 

Now to do this work in a good way is a very simple sentence. But it is not always easy. You’re up against so much dishonesty and misleading statements from your own elected leadership. But we continue to work in a big way anyway. And that’s the way you work together, the way to talk together and it’s even the way you think about each other. There was a time when we were able to communicate with the animals. We were able to communicate with the caribou. And we made a vow to each other to always take care of each other. And they have taken care of us for thousands of years. And now it is our turn to take care of them. Because our land, one that we consider extremely sacred, is being turned into an oil field. 

Could you imagine a church that you attend a place that you hold very sacred being bulldozed over? 

That is how we feel about this area. This is not a place we built. This is a place that we were blessed with. This is a place that Creator blessed us with and we hold this place to high standard. Our connection to the land, to the water and animals—it is all interconnected. There’s no one or the other. This is our survival. This is our entire way of life. 

And you know what happens in the Arctic is going to happen everywhere. We need to start respecting each other’s spirituality, each other’s religion, as long as your religion doesn’t hurt other people. I always hold respect to that. We may not all believe the same thing. We may be raised the same way believing the same things. But all of our spiritual paths are going to be different. Because we all have different lives. 

We are not asking for anything. We’re not asking for money for oil for jobs, we’re simply asking to live off the land at Creator blessed us with—we are asking to be left alone. Because we understand in our hearts, that our survival is our land, our water and our animals.

It’s really hard when people are coming into our homelands and making decisions about our future and not involving us. I’m a grandmother and a mother. And I worry about my children’s future. I worry about my grandchildren’s future. And that is why I’m using my voice right now. I believe in my heart that one of the most powerful tools you have is your voice. And that is why I always use it. 

I got disconnected from my people and from my connection to my loved ones. But in 2007, I went to a mountain that my ancestors used to migrate to. And they migrated alongside the caribou. And something just came over me—I was so overwhelmed. I had not started crying. And I asked Creator for forgiveness for being disconnected for so long. That I shared back that I’m here now to share my responsibility as a Gwich’in. And that responsibility is to protect our land, water and our animals, which protect our way of life.

It’s hard and trying to convince people that will never understand how extremely important our land is to us. It’s not easy, but we try. That’s all we can do. But we need to ask ourselves if we’re going to be on the right side of history. The world don’t end when we do. We need to leave some of this world as Creator left it.

And that’s what our National Wildlife Refuge represents: untouched, unspoiled—it’s one of the last untouched ecosystems in the world. And it has brought so many people together. So many people from all over the world. This area brought us together. So many people have found their way back to being grounded and we need to understand God’s Creation that is what we already have. 

New York for instance: When I went there, there’s so much concrete. I couldn’t find anywhere really to get around it because whenever I come home from traveling I always have to go out on the river, out on the land. And there I couldn’t. Because I was so overwhelmed. And you need nature, trees, even dirt. That may not make sense to somebody. I’m sure it makes sense to a lot because this is who we are. 

This is our way of life—everything that surrounds it, we are interconnected. If something happens to one, then the rest collapses. So that is why I always just share that it’s important. It’s important to respect the Indigenous peoples in this world—not just in this country, but in this world. When we were being told we’re going to be rich, we open up our sacred land to the oil and gas development. Our elders told us that we are already rich—that we were rich in our culture. We are rich in our way of life. And all we have to do is protect it so that our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren will have a chance at survival. 

So you know what I’d like people to take home with them is ‘what’s your survival?’ What is your spirituality? What is your connection? And try to understand where we’re coming from. We have our ways of life, our traditions and our cultures to live on. But that includes our land. That includes water. That includes our animals and that is all we are asking for. 

Respect our spirituality. We deserve the same respect everybody else has. And everybody should know by now that we don’t give up, we don’t stand down—that we will always fight for our ways of life that is interconnected to the land to the water and to the animals. That’s just who we are as a people.  And we are beautiful people.

We come from some of the most amazing people that ever walked this planet—survived some of the coldest, harshest winters so that we can be here. And we owe that same dedication and respect to our future generations.

I’m sure that we all have children or young people that we love. Climate change doesn’t care what color we are—doesn’t care if you’re up-river, down-river, rich, poor, black or white. We are all going to be negatively impacted. And it’s time that we start sticking our differences aside and come together. Because if we don’t, our children are going to be struggling to survive. Our spirituality will be challenged like never before. We are just here to help all people, not just our own. That’s the way we were raised. That’s the way we were brought up. I just hope everyone takes home tonight in their heart: We all deserve respect. We all deserve to keep our spirituality, religion, ways of life. 

As as Indigenous people, it is all interconnected. You can’t have one without the other. On behalf of the Gwich’in nation. Thank you.

– Bernadette Demientieff, October 26, 2022
Freedom to Be event at Union Theological Seminary