Vashraii K’oo: An Arctic Refuge Experience

Alaska Wilderness League and Soul River Inc. recently joined forces to bring a multimedia photo exhibit on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to life.

(Ed. Note: This piece and the events it describes took place prior to the current COVID-19 pandemic, however, we wanted to share some of the great work our amazing field staff have been doing.)

Alaska Wilderness League and Soul River Inc. recently joined forces to bring a multimedia photo exhibit on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to life. Vashraii K’oo: An Arctic Refuge Experience, features 30 larger than life photos from Arctic Village, Alaska, and is designed to use art to bring the Arctic Refuge coastal plain and the efforts of the Gwich’in to protect their traditional lifestyle and the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd to life for audiences.

I headed out to Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles and joined up with Donald Tritt of Arctic Village and Portland’s own Chad Brown, founder of Soul River Inc. and photographer behind the exhibit. We hit the ground running first in Portland, starting with Donald enthralling students at a local school (Sunnyside Middle School) about life in Arctic Village, Alaska, on the border of the Arctic Refuge, and the history of the Gwich’in people.

Chad and Donald later joined Mic Chrenshaw at the KBOO studios, where they recorded a segment for his show “Culture in Motion.” The bi-weekly show discusses art, culture and politics and was an ideal space for both Chad and Donald to share their connections to the Arctic Refuge, their efforts to protect it from oil and gas development, and the role art can play in engaging with new audiences. The show aired February 26, so check it out!

Chad Brown and Donald Tritt (far left) speak with exhibit attendees at the Irving Street Studio in Portland. (Alaska Wilderness League)

“Vashraii K’oo” opened to the public on February 14 and 15 and more than 200 attendees turned out to show some love for the Arctic Refuge. They were treated to first-hand stories from Donald and Chad on working together to capture images and anecdotes about the many Gwich’in family and friends who were featured in the exhibit. Many of those in attendance shared how moved and inspired they were by the photos and stories, and on the second day of the show we were even visited by Oregon governor Kate Brown and her husband who had heard about the exhibit and wanted to learn more!

One feeling that was consistent among attendees throughout the showings, whether they had been a long time Arctic Refuge advocate or had little prior knowledge of the issue, was that by the time they left the exhibit they were ready to stand in solidarity with the Gwich’in and protect the Arctic Refuge.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown (right) taking a group photo of Donald Tritt, Chad Brown and first gentlemen Dan Brown. (Alaska Wilderness League)

From Portland, we traveled to Los Angeles in March for another exhibit sponsored in conjunction with the Hip Hop Caucus. A great week in Los Angeles was made possible due to a number of local and national partners that helped us reach a wide audience and make so many events a success, in particular the Sierra Club which provided a ton of support in pulling the events together.

Between March 5 and March 9, more than 150 folks showed up in solidarity with the Gwich’in people at four different events. Chad Brown was joined by Bernadette Demientieff and Isaiah Horace from the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and the intent was to engage a younger, more diverse demographic by holding space for cross-cultural solidarity.

At the first event on Thursday, a community dialogue event was held, hosted jointly by the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples and East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice. EYCEJ and Sacred Places facilitated a tour of the oil refineries in Long Beach, California. Afterward, more than 45 community members from the Long Beach/San Pedro area showed up for the community dialogue.

Friday was spent downtown meeting with various Los Angeles City Council member offices to advocate for an Arctic resolution that would prohibit the city of Los Angeles from doing business with any oil company who develops the refuge. We were very well received and are delighted to have the support of council member Paul Koretz, a member of the Los Angeles City Council representing the Fifth Council District office who will be advancing the resolution in the coming weeks.

Bernadette and Isiah, joined by Monica and Chad, make their case to Councilmember Koretz. (Alaska Wilderness League)

On Saturday, we had our first public exhibit event hosted jointly with the Hip Hop Caucus in downtown Los Angeles, and the following day we wrapped things up with a final event in Echo Park at Tropico de Nopal. Both events were tremendously successful, and we were honored on Sunday to have Grandma Gloria of the Tongva tribe join us for a welcoming and land acknowledgement. Chad’s portraits truly shined in the gallery space and we were delighted to see folks from the neighborhood stop by to learn about the campaign.

Bernadette, Chad and Horace join Rev. Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus. (Alaska Wilderness League)

All in all, our time in Los Angeles was tremendously successful, and we look forward to returning once the Arctic resolution is introduced through the Los Angeles City Council!

(Huge thanks to Michelle Piñon at Sierra Club for her work in making these events a huge success and in sharing these events with you!)

UPDATE: For those interested in experiencing Chad’s work, Vashraii K’oo was scheduled to travel to Seattle, Atlanta and possibly Washington, D.C., in the next few months, however those plans are currently on hold due to COVID-19. We will continue to provide updates on future exhibit dates, however, until then stay healthy and safe in the next days/weeks/months of social distancing. For more information on how Alaska Wilderness League is dealing with COVID-19, visit our blog post here.