Answering the call: Faith Gemmill on environmental activism for Alaska

Faith Gemmill speaks about her Alaskan tribe fighting human rights violations and how the global changes are impacting the northern lands they live on. The keynote speaker was part of the semester long Environmental Metanoia event. (Nick Hampton/The Daily Campus)

“Do you have polar bears anywhere in the U.S.?” Faith Gemmill questioned her audience during her keynote talk for the UConn Metanoia on the Environment. Gemmill explained you can’t find them anywhere in the U.S. except Alaska, noting the uniqueness of her home.  

During her talk entitled “Extreme Energy Extraction in Alaska: A Climate of Chaos,” Gemmill expounded on how Alaska’s uniqueness in terms of its environment makes it a prime target for certain energy industries, as well as a special natural place that must be protected.

As a member of the Neets’aii Gwich’in nation, Gemmill found herself intimately connected to the land from an early age. She discussed the lifestyle common in her own and other small northern Alaskan native villages, a primarily subsistence-based way of life where the people respect the environment and take care of the land and each other.

When drilling companies began to encroach in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the northern area of Alaska in which many Gwich’in communities are located, Gemmill began to realize that there was trouble brewing. As a young woman, Gemmill and others looked to tribal leaders and elders to find a way to prevent the environmental destruction that oil and gas companies would most certainly bring to their homeland. At one important meeting, Gemmill said “nearly every person got up and spoke… and (it was) from the heart. It was very powerful.”

Gemmill took this moment to heart. The courage and outspokenness of her people inspired her.

This moment was Gemmill’s call to action as an environmental activist. She later went on to found Resisting Environmental Destruction On Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), a grassroots movement that seeks to preserve tribal lands in Alaska.

“Alaska natives want to be leaders and players in creating the new economy,” Gemmill said of creating REDOIL to protect the interests of the native peoples after she noticed lawmakers were not listening to them.

Gemmill recalled a particularly trying battle against the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which she explained brought many corporations into pristine Alaskan wilderness and was not truly in her nation’s best interest.

“The act was created without our voice or vote,” Gemmill said.

She also said ANCSA created ideological conflict between established tribes and the new corporations, as the tribes looked out for the wellbeing of their people, whereas the corporations just wanted to profit from the natural resources that they were extracting.

Toward the end of her discussion, Gemmill talked about how her tribe views climate change and the environmental degradation that comes with it as the coming of an ancient prophecy. According to the prophecy, there will be a war of words, and when people learn of this conflict, it will be a wake-up call. The activist used this idea to stress the importance of young people becoming involved in activism.

“You play a role. You play a role in what’s happening because you’re the most impacted. So you have to stand for yourselves, for your children, for your grandchildren,” Gemmill told the students in the audience.

Some students responded strongly to Gemmill’s powerful message.

“I thought it was pretty cool, and I think she said a lot of important things. I also think it’s really important for our future to take care of the environment,” Niko Franceschi-Hofmann, an eighth-semester chemical engineering and business management student, said.

“I hope that they stand firm and stop all these developments from occurring and stop the current development, period…. I hope they’re successful with that,” eighth-semester HDFS major Toni Brown said.

Also at the event was UConn President Susan Herbst, who spoke shortly about how UConn promotes sustainability on its campus and how important student activism is to environmental causes.


Stephanie Santillo is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.santillo@uconn.edu.