It's best to experience firsthand what you're fighting for. When two adventurers embark on a dangerous four-month expedition documenting the world’s longest land mammal migration through the Arctic Refuge of Alaska, they soon discover an incredible ecosystem protected by the Gwich’in Nation for more than 25,000 years, yet held on the precipice of collapse by resource development corporations.
Produced, Filmed & Edited by: Kristin Gates & Jeremy Là Zelle
A controversial provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 provides for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to drilling and ordered the administration to hold at least two lease sales within seven years.
“An energy-dominant America starts with an energy-dominant Alaska,” outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement.
“What kind of life are we really living if everything is for sale and nothing is sacred? My people’s culture and those elders, they’re not for sale. My culture is not for sale. If somebody else wants to put a price tag on it, that’s their misgiving, and it’s their inability to see what true value is. Because I think this is much more than just five percent of the coast. This is one hundred percent of my people.”
- Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of Old Crow, Yukon Territories, Canada
Written by: Kristin Gates
The Gwich’in Nation is right now fighting to defend not just their land and animals but their own culture. The Gwich’in, also known as the Caribou People, live in 13 villages along the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s migration route in Northeastern Alaska and Northwestern Canada. They have been physically and spiritually tied to the herd for over 20,000 years. They rely on the herd to sustain and continue their way of life. Caribou are the main food source for most of the surrounding villages in the Interior. A threat to the health of the Herd is a threat to the Gwich’in way of life. Without the Herd, communities would be forced to move to urban areas because the cost of living is too expensive without the caribou to depend on for sustenance and nutrition. “There is no satisfactory substitute for the cultural, spiritual, and nutritional value that the Porcupine Caribou Herd delivers to the Gwich’in People.” (Bernadette Dimientieff)
The fight to protect the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving grounds from oil and gas development has been going on for decades but now, time is running out. Last December, the Tax Bill was passed. Pro oil development players used this as a back-door means of opening the Arctic Refuge to the oil and gas industry. The bill put oil before everything, including the Gwich’in people and the wildlife on which they depend to survive. The department of Interior has fast tracked a process that usually takes five years and condensed it down to one year. They are rushing and cutting corners, and not listening to the public to serve their purpose. Seismic testing could happen in the Refuge as early as December 2018. The world needs to stand with the Gwich’in now.
The area that is at stake for oil and gas development is known by the Gwich’in as “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins” because it is the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Every year this 200,000 animal herd migrates to the coastal plains and 40,000 calves are born. The herd uses the coastal plains as its nursery because of the abundance of food, because the cool breeze from the Arctic Ocean gives them relief from mosquitoes, and because the open landscape makes it easier to watch for predators. Calf mortality rates skyrocket on the years that the herd is not able to make it here. Studies of female caribou from neighboring herds have shown that their use of developed areas has dropped by 78%. The Central and Western Arctic caribou herds were able to move elsewhere when Prudhoe Bay was developed because the coastal plains are much more extensive in this part of the Arctic. In the Refuge, however, there is only 18 miles between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. Development would be enormously disruptive to the herd, potentially causing them to change their migration route which would be devastating to Gwich’in villages.
Across Canada, caribou herds populations have been decreasing and wildlife biologists like Catherine Gangnon, who we interviewed for the film, are increasingly convinced that this is due solely to development. The Porcupine Caribou herd is the last herd in North America with healthy numbers because its migration route is untouched by industry.
The coastal plains of the Arctic Refuge are also the thickest polar bear denning sight in all of Alaska. Five to eight million shorebirds forage here and rest each spring on their way to arctic breeding grounds. More than 200 different species of bird migrate to the Refuge. Five species of loons, tundra swans, golden plovers, snowy owls and the Arctic tern (which migrates from Antarctica) all depend on the Refuge. The Refuge is also home to musk oxen, wolves, arctic fox, lynx, wolverines, moose, grizzly bear, black bear and many other species.
The Gwich’in are not against oil and gas development altogether but they are 100% against it on the coastal plains of the Refuge because they know how much it will impact the animals that they have lived alongside for thousands of years. The United States has other oil resources and it is unnecessary to destroy this important culture for the sake of oil and gas.
When I was 25 years old, I bushwhacked across the state of Alaska by myself and witnessed a corner of the Porcupine Caribou Herd migration. It is the holiest sight I have ever seen and just being out there has changed the course of my life. Jeremy Là Zelle and I headed into the Refuge this spring to visit every Gwich’in Community we could and document the migration of the Porcupine Herd and as much of the wildlife as possible. We are creating media for the Gwich’in Steering Committee to help in the fight and doing everything we can to stand with our Gwich’in friends during this difficult time. We are the best people to tell this story because we have lived with the Gwich’in, we have lived with the Porcupine Caribou, and we have the filmmaking skills necessary to tell the story in a powerful way. So much is at stake. There is so little time to make a difference. Please help us to stand with the Gwich’in and share their important story before it is too late.
Please contact the Gwich'in Steering Committee:
The foundation of the story is told through the voice of the film’s narrator Kristin Gates, along with the leaders of the Gwich'in Nation.
Their unsupported quest through the harsh yet beautiful winter environment of the Arctic Refuge in search of the Porcupine Caribou Migration provides the setting and location of much of the film’s natural challenges including severe storms and challenging encounters with bears and wolves.
The overarching story focuses on the current issues (environmental and human rights) of the Gwich’in Nation. Leaders of the Gwich’in Nation (both young and old) speak directly to the audience through in-scene moments and formal interviews as they analyze and discuss the value of their culture and the continued protection of their land from resource development corporations. The formal interviews are spoken in both English and the Gwich’in Language, which ultimately helps the Gwich’in continue the preservation of their language for future generations.
We showcase the spectacular one-of-a-kind intact ecosystem of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Yukon Territories. The footage is 100% original, breathtaking, and completely filmed entirely by Kristin and Jeremy in some of the world’s most challenging conditions. Audiences will have an opportunity to see a landscape never before seen on the big screen.
Most importantly, audiences will be directly educated from the leaders of the Gwich’in Nation and discover what it means to truly be an advocate for the preservation of natural ecosystems. Further, audiences will see how environmental issues are directly related to human rights abuses.
A Call-To-Action will be provided to audiences so they may join the Gwich’in Nation in their fight to protect their culture and the Arctic Refuge for future generations.
KRISTIN GATES: I moved to Alaska's Arctic when I was 23 years old. Before arriving to the last frontier, I dedicated my life to embracing America's wildest and most remote areas. I became the youngest woman to complete the Triple Crown of thru-hiking [Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Appalachian Trail] and I had experienced most of the wilderness areas in our country. I thought I knew what wilderness was, but as I stood at the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the first time, I understood this place is something completely different and unique. This is real wilderness. When I was 25, I became the first woman to trek solo across the Brooks Range and during that trip, I was lucky enough to walk across the trail-less Refuge. The experience completely changed my life. I became more focused on dedicating my energy to showcasing America's wildest areas and how best to continually protect them. While alone in the Refuge, I encountered the Porcupine Caribou Herd Migration pouring through valleys as they traveled north to the calving grounds followed by grizzly bears and wolves. I followed the paths of these incredible animals and the experiences were the holiest and most inspiring I'd ever seen. This is one of the last ecologically intact places on the planet. It must be protected.
JEREMY LÀ ZELLE: Jeremy Là Zelle travels around the world filming and documenting exciting projects for TV Networks, Nations, NGOs, Charities, and Businesses who make a positive social impact on their communities. Jeremy has written, directed, & produced for National Geographic Channel, History Channel, Animal Planet, incredible nations such as the Kingdom of Bhutan, Kingdom of Eswatini, Ethiopia, Peru, and many more.
With Expedition ANWR, Jeremy hopes to showcase and highlight the leaders of the Gwich'in Nation and the magnificent beauty of the area's flora and fauna.
For more information, please see our work on FilmFreeway
To help the Gwich'in Nation in their fight to protect ANWR from development and to preserve their incredible culture, we provide all our media (fully edited with original music) to news organizations, NGOs, environmental organizations, and supporters around the world...all for free. Our work is entirely non-profit, self-funded, and with the help of donations via gofundme.
Here our work is exhibited via The Sierra Club (400,000+ views and counting).
Our work is funded entirely out-of-pocket and through the generous donations via our incredible supporters on GoFundMe. Please consider donating today. We have so much more work to do to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to assist the Gwich'in Nation during this challenging time.
Alaska, United States
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