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Harnessing People Power to Protect Alaska’s Last Remaining Wilderness
January has seen major progress toward protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, thanks to the organizing power of three distinct communities—Indigenous activists, TikTok creators, and the makers of an unfinished documentary film—that came together toward a common goal.
In December, with an oil lease sale looming and the Trump administration trying to push through a seismic study for oil exploration before leaving the White House, the pressure was on for environmental groups and Gwich’in and Iñupiat activists who have been working to stave off fossil fuel companies for decades.
“To be honest, it’s not easy going into places, talking to people that will never understand how spiritually and culturally connected we are to our land, to our water, and to our animals,” says Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “But I do it anyway. I try anyway.” She believes telling her story is the most important and powerful tool for making change. And she’s using new platforms to get that message out, including TikTok.
Western science supports that move: As Ru Mahoney, the founder of Project Impact explains, media—in the form of TV news, stories on social media, videos on YouTube, etc.—is the No.1 force that determines how people make decisions relating to scientific issues like climate change. That’s why she works as a science impact producer to maximize the social impact of stories in the media.
One of her team’s current projects is a film called The Arctic: Our Last Great Wilderness, featuring the expertise of Demientieff and other Gwich’in and Iñupiat voices to illuminate why and how Arctic ecosystems need to be protected. The film was set to be released in the fall of 2020, just before the scheduled oil lease sale and the Trump administration’s final push for new oil exploration in Alaska. But then COVID-19 hit, and the film project halted.
“The point had always been to use the film to point people towards meaningful action to protect the refuge,” Mahoney says. So the team decided to pivot. They would use the images and video from the film—shot by National Geographic photographer Florian Schulz—in an entirely new way: by making them available to users on TikTok for free.
Mahoney says social media is a way for people to reclaim the power to tell their stories while sidestepping the overly polarized landscape that exists in traditional media. And the idea paid off. Through a viral campaign in support of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, activists were able to garner more letters to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in three short weeks than the federal government had ever received during a public comment period.
“The youngest generation stood up for something that they believe in that represents human rights, that represents the fight for climate change, that represents the fight for our future,” says Alex Haraus, the TikTok creator responsible for kicking off the viral ANWR campaign.
The oil exploration plan that the Trump administration was trying to ram through was effectively blocked because the Fish and Wildlife Service was unable to process the 6.3 million letters it received during the public comment period before Trump left office.
This environmental and human rights victory was the product of people power—a collaboration between those whose people have called this land home for tens of thousands of years, and some who had never set foot there. But everyone understood that it was a shared future at stake in an already changing climate.
“As Gwich’in people, we don’t only protect this area just for ourselves, we protect it for you guys and… your children,” Demientieff says. “Because what happens up here will happen everywhere.”
Climate Change Is Here
Climate change is hitting the Arctic first and fastest. The present reality for Indigenous peoples and the wildlife around them is grim: “We literally had thousands and thousands of dead fish in our rivers and lakes, and birds literally falling out of the sky of starvation,” Demientieff says.
“We have 12 villages in Alaska right now that need immediate relocation because they’re falling into the ocean,” says Siqiniq Maupin, director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic. “And this is just the beginning.”
The Indigenous stewardship of these lands goes beyond material needs to encompass spiritual and cultural dimensions. “Our entire identity is based on the land, and we’re boldly bringing that up,” Maupin says.
The areas that are being considered for oil exploration and drilling are sacred to many. The Gwich’in, for example, have protected the coastal plain for millennia without setting foot in it because it is just too important for the caribou, who rely on the visibility of its open expanses and its mosquito-fighting ocean winds for safety during calving.
“We are real people,” Demientieff says. “We have jobs, we have families, we have children, we have homes.” She understands the economic pressures facing fossil fuel workers and recognizes the value of economic activity in the region. But she’s not willing to pursue that at the expense of the environment that sustains her people and their caribou relatives. “Some people forgot that we are already rich—rich in our culture, religion, our way of life,” she says. “Our people is not up for negotiation. Our way of life is not for sale.”
Still, on Jan. 6, an oil lease sale was held to auction off drilling rights in the last remaining area of undeveloped land in what is now northern Alaska. Just a few bidders showed up and the sale totaled only 1% of the income it was initially expected to generate. This was a clear message that the fossil fuel industry does not have a future in the status quo.
Divestment from fossil fuels is happening on a grand scale, including by the state of New York in December. Major banks, too, have announced that they will not finance new oil and gas development, which can affect public opinion and policy. Even oil companies themselves are starting to make the transition: BP is slashing its oil exploration arm in favor of investments in renewables. And just today, Biden announced he’s pausing new oil and gas drilling on public lands.
The Power of Storytelling
Mahoney recognizes that participation in the democratic process can often seem painful and slow, or even performative. She says she initially saw a lot of comments on TikTok to that effect—pessimism about how those in power never listen, so it’s not worth saying anything. But that impression was proven wrong. “When you participate in the democratic process en masse, it does make a difference,” Mahoney says.
That’s the power of storytelling, Mahoney says, and that’s one of the takeaways of this movement: seeing and acknowledging power in people who are not considered powerful in the traditional political machine. Expertise and wisdom come in many forms.
“One of the most underestimated assets in the fight against climate change, and in activism in general, is the research ability, the technical prowess, and the coordination of the youngest generation,” says Haraus, 23, a conservation photographer and climate communicator. He says the power dynamic has to shift to recognize that. “We can rally as a generation,” Haraus says. “That’s incredibly powerful. That’s a very, very tangible force to be reckoned with.”
To organize the ANWR movement, Haraus not only created content that encouraged people to send letters to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but also put together a toolkit that included the photos and videos, along with background information to inform other creators about the issues surrounding the refuge. He says young people aren’t often trusted with this kind of professional content, but that they can do amazing things when they’re given the tools and resources.
“Anyone that has the capacity to use this platform can be an activist and stand up for this,” he says. But “if you want to communicate with people, you have to be able to relate to them.” That’s why everyone can and should take their own, authentic approach.
Haraus recalls the first person to use the toolkit was 16 years old, and “an awesome human being.” The first piece of content that teenager put out got more than 100,000 views, so he kept putting out more TikToks. “He is single-handedly responsible for tens of thousands of letters, and he knows that now,” Haraus says. If he hadn’t been trusted to use the film’s images and videos, Haraus says, “he wouldn’t have been as inspired and on fire for environmental activism now going forward.”
“People were empowered to tell the stories that mattered to them,” Mahoney explains. “And then that meant that they brought people who also cared about the topics to the issue.” Some laser-focused on Indigenous social justice issues. Others zoomed in on the environmental impacts. One young wildlife advocate even crocheted a polar bear in her appeal video. They each took the issue and made it their own. “There was a diversity of voices,” Mahoney says. “There are a lot of different types of people who care about this issue.”
The intersectionality of the issue is part of what made its appeal so widespread. About 70% of Americans are against drilling in ANWR, including a majority of Republicans.
“In Alaska, we’re realizing that compartmentalizing these projects and trying to fight them off individually is really what, unfortunately, the government counts on,” Maupin says. But when people come together to talk about the larger issue of climate justice that ties these environmental, human rights, economic, and public lands issues together, she says, they see how similar the challenges they face really are, from rural villages in Alaska to inner city Chicago.
“We need to stick our differences aside,” Demientieff says. “We need to come together for our future generations. We have to. We don’t have time.” Climate change doesn’t care who you are, she says. “We’re all going to be impacted, so we need to work together. We need to protect what we have left.”
For her part, Demientieff is leaning into the power of storytelling on social media, too. She, too, is on TikTok these days.
“It’s so spectacular to witness people from all over the world in a livestream, interacting and speaking directly with Bernadette and the face of this movement,” Haraus says. “Taking her time as a leader to engage with this community is incredibly powerful.”
Demientieff says she takes the time to talk to everyone, no matter who they are, because she never knows where her voice will take her. And right now, she says, we need all hands on deck. That’s why the Gwich’in Steering Committee has also designed a training for their own people to be Arctic advocates. It includes their creation story, their connection to the Earth, and stories from their elders.
Valuing everyone’s unique expertise and empowering them to join the movement is key. And that will be all the more important in the ongoing quest for permanent protection of the refuge.
“If you have it in your heart, you have it.” Demientieff says. “You need to ask yourself, as a human being, what side of history are you going to be on?”
Correction: This story was updated at 3:02 pm on January 28, 2021 to reflect that Demientieff has communicated with Haraus and his audience on social media platforms, but the two have not created content together. Read our editorial corrections policy here.
Breanna Draxler is a senior editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice, and Native rights. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.