RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Drill, baby, drill - that was former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's rallying cry years ago, and it became a standard line for a lot of Republicans anxious to get oil out of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now the Trump administration is set to get that drilling started. Among those who fought hardest against oil development there - the Alaska Native Gwich'in, whose tribal lands border the refuge. As Elizabeth Harball of Alaska's Energy Desk reports, some aren't ready to admit defeat.
ELIZABETH HARBALL, BYLINE: One thing lies at the heart of Gwich'in tribe's opposition to oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - caribou.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everybody ready? On your mark, set, go.
HARBALL: At an annual carnival held in Arctic Village, men gather around a plastic folding table for a caribou leg-skinning contest. Their knives work from knee to cloven hoof, hands tugging hide from bone.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Looking for second and third.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Second.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Second.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Third.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Third.
HARBALL: One of the top finishers is David Smith Jr. He's a leader, the second chief in this small remote community. And like most everyone in Arctic Village, Smith believes oil development and the refuge would harm the caribou his people hunt.
DAVID SMITH JR: And that's going to change our very lifestyle. The reason we're here is for the caribou.
HARBALL: Caribou are a primary source of food here; more than that, they're part of the tribe's cultural identity. Two-hundred thousand-some caribou migrate past Arctic Village and other Gwich'in communities every year. Smith says the caribou herd allows the Gwich'in to continue their traditional way of life.
SMITH: I would say this is like no other place on Earth, so we shouldn't be treated like any other place on Earth. I can drive in any direction and hunt freely. I can drive in any direction and go trapping.
HARBALL: The main caribou herd the Gwich'in hunt is called the Porcupine. It commonly gives birth in the same part of the refuge where drilling is now legal. Scientists say predicting exactly how drilling could affect the caribou is tricky. Near other oil developments in Alaska's Arctic, calving caribou were able to shift their movements away from infrastructure. But the calving area in the refuge is more hemmed in, between a mountain range and the Arctic Ocean. So some biologists worry the impacts could be greater. In a moment of quiet during the carnival, Arctic Village council member Faith Gemmill bounces a relative's baby on her lap.
FAITH GEMMILL: Pretty girl. Pretty girl.
HARBALL: Gemmill says when Congress legalized drilling in the refuge in 2017, it shifted the ground beneath the Gwich'in and galvanized them, too.
GEMMILL: It's put our tribe in the position of defense. And we have to work hard, harder than we've worked before, to try to defeat that.
HARBALL: And they keep fighting - every way they can - an effort that extends far beyond this small community. Gwich'in advocates have forged strong alliances with environmental groups, and they traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress. This has drawn ire from the many other Alaskans who support drilling in the refuge because oil is a huge part of the state's economy. Here's Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young at a hearing in March.
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DON YOUNG: I'll tell you, Mr. Chairman, I want to believe the people - not the Gwich'in because they're not the people.
HARBALL: He accused them of accepting money to protest and of stealing the national narrative from the Alaska Native people who live in the refuge. The Inupiat are closer to where drilling would happen, and many of them do support it. These are decades old arguments, but as drilling moves closer to reality, the edges have gotten sharper. Back in Arctic Village, longtime Gwich'in activist Sarah James is not ready to say they've lost.
SARAH JAMES: We're proud to be Gwich'in. We're proud to be caribou people. We love our food. We love who we are, so we'll never give up on that. We're never going to surrender (laughter).
HARBALL: And it's true; a lot could happen between now and when oil rigs show up in the refuge. Environmental groups could sue, and there's a presidential election coming up. But the Trump administration is moving fast. It aims to let oil companies bid on land in the refuge by the end of this year.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Harball.
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