‘They’re not the people': Young blasts Gwich’in ANWR drilling opponents
Rep. Don Young offered a vehement rebuttal this week against a move by House Democrats to repeal provisions for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling, questioning the authenticity of Alaska Native drilling opponents and seemingly challenging one of the bill’s sponsors to a fight.
The heated exchanges took place Tuesday, during a meeting of House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources regarding the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act. That measure, co-sponsored by committee member Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and backed by more than 100 House members, would remove the path to ANWR drilling included as part of a GOP tax bill narrowly passed in late 2017.
The House, which Democrats seized control of during the November elections, has become one venue among several for opposition to ANWR drilling. After the December release of a draft environmental impact statement for drilling in the 1002 area of the refuge’s coastal plain, hundreds of scientists — including dozens of Alaskans — sent a letter to the Trump administration criticizing that statement as inadequate. At a final public comment hearing on the draft statement in February, drilling opponents questioned the plan's effects on Kaktovik but the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. backed the process which generated the statement.
On Tuesday, subcommittee chair Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., convened a hearing at which members first heard from a group of Gwich’in drilling opponents invited by Democrats, then a group including Inupiat backers of drilling invited by Republicans.
In a video of the hearing posted by the committee’s Democratic majority, Lowenthal characterized the decades-long debate over ANWR as pitting profit against habitat.
“For the oil and gas industry, it’s a promising cash cow with billions of dollars of oil awaiting to be sold,” Lowenthal said. “But for others, such as myself and the majority of Americans, it is a fragile ecosystem with exceptional wilderness values that is considered the biological heart of the Arctic refuge.”
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., countered that “not one part of the coastal plain” contains formally designated wilderness. He then ceded his time to Young — who criticized the Gwich’in waiting to speak, contrasting them against the Inupiat.
“I want to believe the people,” Young said. “Not the Gwich’in, because they’re not the people; they’re 400 miles away. I’m talking of the Inuits that live there. That’s their land, it’s always been their land. You totally ignore them.”
Young alluded to his own Gwich’in ties through his late wife before continuing his critique.
“That’s my tribe,” Young said. “My wife was Gwich’in; my daughter’s a Gwich’in. We have a few Gwich’in that make a living out of this by promoting something that’s wrong, by saying we want to take away from their brothers — that’s wrong.”
After accusing drilling opponents of having "divided two tribes" Young turned to his fellow committee members, imploring them to focus on Inupiat testimony regarding ANWR.
“Listen to the people that live there; if not, you’re not representatives at all,” Young said. “This is all that I ask you to do: listen to them, hear what they say, not someone who’s living in Fairbanks, not someone that’s not killed a caribou in 10 years and probably doesn’t have a [hunting] license.”
Gwich’in Council International board member Sam Alexander, an Army Special Forces veteran who once lived in Fort Yukon but now makes his home in Fairbanks, gave an impassioned statement against drilling in the refuge.
“So why do we fight so hard to protect this land?” Alexander said. “The word ‘Gwich’in’ means ‘people of a place,’ and the refuge is one of the places we are from long before there was a refuge and long before there was a United States.”
Drilling in the coastal plain, Alexander said, would threaten the Porcupine caribou herd that travels through ANWR — and as Alexander’s father told him, “Without caribou the refuge dies.”
Alexander ended his testimony with two phrases: “Mahsi’ choo,” Gwich’in for thank you, and “De oppresso liber” — the Army Special Forces motto, Latin for “to free from oppression.”
In subsequent statements to the committee, Alexander specifically called out Young’s initial comments.
“I’d like to make something very, very clear to this audience, and to everybody out there that is listening, and that is that Mr. Don Young does not represent the Gwich’in,” Alexander said. “He does not represent the Gwich’in and our voice.”
“I represent Alaska, I represent Alaska,” Young responded, shouting over Alexander. “I don’t represent you, because you don’t represent the Gwich’in!”
After the Gwich’in representatives spoke, Huffman, the anti-drilling measure’s co-sponsor, made a statement concluding his questions to the group.
“I believe it’s important to listen to these local voices regarding the impacts of oil and gas development, and what that will mean to the coastal plain and the way of life that it sustains,” he said. “It is not a postage stamp; it is a bullet through the heart of America’s Arctic refuge.”
When Young was called again, he began by directly admonishing the committee's chair over his exchange with Alexander.
“I’ll stick by my guns: when I’m in the chair, the witnesses will not mention my name," Young told Lowenthal. "Because I did not mention theirs, you can ring them out of order; I used to sit in that chair. Is that understood?”
After a few seconds of stunned silence, Huffman asked Young a pointed question regarding the Gwich'in speakers.
“A parliamentary inquiry: Does this standard that my colleague is articulating include mentioning where he thinks their hometown is, and disparaging them for not living close enough to the coastal plain?” he asked. “Because that got pretty personal.”
Young and Huffman then began talking over each other for a few seconds, briefly bringing the hearing to a halt.
“If you want to argue with me, I’ll argue with you later, OK?” Young asked Huffman, clenching a fist in the air beside his microphone. “We’ll take care of that little problem.”
“OK?” Huffman tentatively responded.
Never a stranger to controversy, Young was known in the 1990s for brandishing an oosik in a House committee hearing. More recently, he drew rebukes from fellow House Republicans in 2013 after referring to migrant laborers as “wetbacks” and made national news in 2014 for disparaging comments to a Wasilla High School audience regarding a student who had taken his own life.
A spokesman for Young gave the following statement regarding his remarks Tuesday:
Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee stacked Tuesday’s hearing with only Gwich’in witnesses. Republicans on the subcommittee were the only ones who invited witnesses of Inuit descent. Congressman Young correctly pointed out that the Gwich’in live over 400 miles from the land Congress intentionally set aside for resource development. Congressman Young believes that in discussions concerning resource development, all Indigenous voices, including Inuits, must be heard. Congressman Young’s late wife, Lu Young, was a Gwich’in Athabascan from Fort Yukon, and his daughters and grandchildren are Alaska Native. Because of this personal connection, supporting Native communities has consistently been — and continues to be — one of his highest priorities in Congress.
Janis Harper and Rhonda McBride contributed information to this story.
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