Neetsa’ii Gwich’in elder Sarah James is known internationally for her advocacy surrounding one of the most contentious issues in Alaska: oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
And, on the occasion of Arctic Village’s annual spring carnival, James is also known for her fry bread.
Assessing the supply of flour in her kitchen early one April afternoon, James, 75, wasn’t sure she had enough ingredients on hand to satisfy the demand.
“Even if I mix up ten pound, they’re crazy for it,” she said. “They wanted it yesterday.”
The recipe is one-of-a-kind.
“This is Navajo fry bread,” James explained. “But it became my own fry bread — my own recipe. So it’s my fry bread now.”
James’ recipe originated in Oregon where, at 13, she began attending Chemawa Indian High School in Salem. Like many Alaska Native children at the time, she was sent away to boarding school.
But James’ roots remained firmly in the land where she was born. As she folded ingredients together with a long spoon, James spoke about her family going into the mountains in summer to hunt sheep and other game, catching trout in the nearby Old John Lake and seeing caribou stampede upriver — she remembers listening from a tent as they hit the water, crossed and shook off on the other side.
“Even though I went to Western school, I feel like I learned more from growing up off the land,” James said. “It makes more sense.”
James’ desire to preserve that way of life drove her into the thick of the battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For decades, James has traveled around the world to speak about her people’s ardent opposition to oil drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain, where the caribou herd they hunt commonly gives birth to calves.
Speaking to James in her kitchen, it becomes clear she carries multiple roles within her. She is an elder, a keeper of traditional knowledge and history — a true Neetsa’ii Gwich’in woman, as the first tribal chief of Arctic Village put it in a recent interview. James is also a seasoned, politically astute and indefatigable activist.
Recently, though, James transitioned to a more formal role. She has been appointed as a spokesperson on the Arctic Refuge issue for the three Neets’aii Gwich’in tribal governments that own 1.8 million acres at its borders — the Arctic Village Council, the Venetie Village Council and the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. The tribes are now engaging directly in government-to-government meetings with the Trump administration as it plans for an oil lease sale in the refuge.
James draws a distinction between her work and the work of conservation groups.
“They are for recreation, for animal protection, hiking, rafting… We Neetsa’ii Gwich’in, we have always been there. God put us there to take care of that part of the world,” James said.
Asked when she began her advocacy, James doesn’t name a specific event: “It’s not when I started. I was born with it.”
Even before the Arctic Refuge controversy heated up, James was involved in notable protests. While attending college and working in San Francisco in the late 1960s, she fell in with a group of other indigenous students.
“And they were talking about Alcatraz, ‘we should just take Alcatraz back,’” James recalled.
And they did — for 19 months. Led by Mohawk activist Richard Oakes, a group occupied the former prison island starting in November 1969. James was there for part of it. She remembers watching government helicopters flying overhead.
But James describes her role in the Alcatraz occupation as a “tagalong.” Her leadership on the issue she became known for came later.
In 1988, Gwich’in leaders from across Alaska and Canada gathered in Arctic Village and passed a resolution formalizing their opposition to oil development in the refuge.
In part, it reads: “The health and productivity of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and their availability to Gwich’in communities, and the very future of our People is endangered by proposed oil and gas exploration and development in the calving and post-calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
The leaders asked James, then in her forties, to be one of eight representatives to take that resolution into the political arena.
“They said, ‘the only way we can win is to do it in a good way, make friends, [explain] why we say no to oil, educate them in a good way, stay united — and no compromise,’” James said.
James took that philosophy with her on many trips to Washington, D.C. during Congress’ repeated attempts to open the refuge’s coastal plain to oil development. There, she rubbed shoulders with powerful figures on both sides of the fight, from former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to former Secretary of State John Kerry. In 2005, during President George W. Bush’s second attempt to allow oil exploration in the refuge, she kept a 5-month vigil near the Capitol, outside the National Museum of the American Indian.
On the wall by James’ kitchen, there is a photo of her shaking hands with former President Bill Clinton, who vetoed a bill allowing drilling in the refuge in 1995. Clinton signed the photo with a note that reads, “With thanks for your great work.”
Gail Small, one of James’ good friends, said they often talk about shifting between their own cultures and the political world of Washington, D.C. Small, a program director at an organization for indigenous women leaders, is Northern Cheyenne and also has long advocated on similar issues.
“I grew up on the reservation,” said Small. “For you to understand the complexities of the Western world and be able to move back and forth between those worlds — it’s exhausting, it’s tiring, and the fact that Sarah’s been doing this for like 50 years, it’s a remarkable achievement for anyone.”
Small said she has watched as James, exhausted from a long international flight, came to life when delivering a speech. She said James would arrive at meetings with pre-written resolutions of support for the Gwich’in.
“One thing about Sarah James, she always comes prepared,” said Small. “She’s always got all these papers, pulling them out of her backpack.”
And just as her elders directed, James’ message is always positive.
“Sarah never tries to be someone who’s angry, or aggressive. She just talks her story,” Small said.
James explained this is intentional. Of course she hears the criticisms often directed at her and other Gwich’in advocates — like that they’re working at the behest of their environmentalist allies or overstating the risk to caribou at the expense of economic benefits for other Alaskans.
But James refuses to fight with her critics.
“I say what I need to say and leave,” she said. “Not even mention how mean they are, or they’re wrong, or what. I don’t answer them.”
And, James added, “We always won!”
Her side did win — until 2017, when Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which included language opening the Coastal Plain to oil leasing. In the very long war over the Arctic Refuge’s fate, it was a big battle lost.
But a lot could happen between now and when oil rigs show up in the refuge. The possibility of lawsuits and elections loom over the entire process. So James isn’t giving up.
“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’re never going to give up on that,” James said. “We’re never going to surrender.”
After she finished preparing the frybread dough, James rode her four-wheeler down a snow-covered road to the fire pit, where her neighbors and friends had gathered for the spring carnival. There, James dropped pieces of dough into a pan of bubbling oil. It was served to residents and visitors alongside hot tea, rice, salmon, jello and, of course, caribou.
This article has been updated to clarify James’ current role.
Read and listen to more stories from our series The Future of the Arctic Refuge: Riches or Ruin?