Invitation to the Arctic: Brennan Lagasse’s Journey to Safegaurd the Arctic Refuge’s Heritage and Future
Photos by Ming Poon
For POW Creative Alliance member Brennan Lagasse, protecting the Arctic is about more than just safeguarding the landscape from fossil fuel development and drilling. It’s about preserving the culture and way of life of its human inhabitants. Lagasse is a sustainability professor at UNR at Lake Tahoe (formerly Sierra Nevada College), a writer and a backcountry ski guide, and centered his career around advocating for the climate and the people affected by climate change the most.
This commitment earned him an invitation on behalf of Indigenous Neets’aii Gwich’in Elder Sarah James to Arctic Village, Alaska, located at the foot of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Lagasse started taking Sierra Nevada College students along with him on trips to the village in 2014. While there, Lagasse and students meet with Gwichʼin elders to learn about their heritage, way of life and how they can help preserve Gwich’in culture by protecting the land they live on from climate change and fossil fuel development.
“It’s one thing to go to the Arctic Refuge and experience it. You’ll never be the same, in a good way,” said Lagasse. “But it’s another thing to be invited by the people that live there, who have their ancestry there since time immemorial, which is where my invitation lies.”
This past summer, Lagasse was invited back to the Refuge and brought along fellow POW Creative Alliance member, Ming Poon. This time the trip had the goal of spreading the community’s stories far and wide to increase awareness and inspire the masses to take action and permanently protect the Arctic Refuge.
“The overarching goal of these trips is to honor Sarah, her work and the people of Arctic Village— including the whole Gwich’in nation,” said Lagasse. “We want to protect the Refuge and the sacred calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd. We want to share [the] story so that people understand the importance of this place until it has permanent protection.”
Climatic and Cultural Changes in Arctic Village
Lagasse has been working in the Arctic Refuge since 2014 and understands the impacts climate change has had on this landscape. He has seen it with his own eyes as well as from hearing stories from the people who call it home. From melting permafrost and to shifting animal patterns—the impacts of a warming planet are all interconnected and it trickles down to the people who rely on the land as a way of life.
Lagasse recalls seeing old photos of Arctic Village from the 1950s where the landscape is all tundra. Now, however, the place he describes in 2023 is vastly different.
“Willow is growing all over the place because the climate has changed in such a way that it now supports more willow growth. Just in these last few decades, you can see how the vegetation has changed,” said Lagasse
In turn, this has changed the funnel of interactions for the Gwich’in people—the people of the Caribou. Willow is a main food source for moose, enticing them to enter the village, which scares away caribou.
We’re witnessing a real-time shift in climate patterns, causing the range of species in Arctic Village to also shift, subsequently impacting how people live in the Arctic. Lagasse explains that there never was a particular word in Indigenous communities to describe this change because they never needed one. However, what we’re seeing now is dramatic.
“People were in tune with their environments and would never take more than what they should to live in balance with their surroundings,” said Lagasse. “But with climate [change], we have such dramatic impacts where species are being altered in such a way that it also directly impacts the people’s ability to live with their traditions and cultures that they have.”
Charlie Swaney, a well-respected elder and hunter in Arctic Village, has mentored Lagasse and his students over the last decade. On their most recent trip, Swaney took them in a boat to a section of river where the permafrost was eroded away. Lagasse recalls that not being the case during his first visit in 2014, indicating how difficult it is for the Gwich’in to sustain their lifestyle without natural refrigeration of the permafrost.
“You recognize how culture and traditions have been forced to change over time. You can see firsthand that climate change affects and impacts everything in this world, but it impacts some people more than others,” said Lagasse. “In these polar regions, we see that these impacts are exacerbated, and in a place like the Refuge, we can experience it firsthand and learn from people like Charlie about how their lifestyles have been altered as a result.”
Inspiring Change through Stories
Lagasse has learned a lot over the last decade-plus of traveling to the Arctic, but his biggest takeaway is that by listening to the Gwich’in elders who have mentored him, he’s able to make contributions in ways that make a tangible difference.
“It allows you to see through the fact that this can feel insurmountable. We’re trying to solve the climate crisis and bring justice to people who live on this planet,” said Lagasse. “But there are people out there like Sarah and Charlie who have lived their lives in such a way that they have inspired so many. I’m just one of those people, but you don’t know what the ripple effect will be. I have active hope that in these times [when it can] feel like the cards are stacked against us, we can do good things for people and the planet. Even if you can’t get to the Refuge, these photos, videos and stories have the chance to inspire people.”
Lagasse continues to get invitations back to Arctic Village because the elders recognize he and his students aren’t just in it to address climate change, but they’re also committed to doing whatever it takes for the people who live there and the planet.
“That’s part of what I learned from skiing and surfing,” said Lagasse. “I’m so inspired and grateful for the joy that I get from sliding on snow, climbing mountains and catching a wave. Because of that joy, I started asking myself, ‘How can you be a better advocate? How can you be someone who contributes? What does it really mean to live in gratitude and reciprocity?’ The big takeaways for me are that, in the long term, it teaches us to look to the earth, the answers are there.”
The students and Lagasse are working to go beyond just allyship. He wants to become more accomplished and go deeper by continuing to listen to Sarah, Charlie, and people like Iñupiat Elder and wildlife guide, Robert Thompson.
“You listen to those who are most affected by what would happen if the Refuge was opened up for drilling. Then you take their guidance and do the best you can to bridge that and honor their wishes,” said Lagasse.
Lagasse says you might mess up, he still does, but we need to take the keys from the elders and honor the future of the youth. “This work can translate into more progressive policy and different action campaigns to get the Arctic on the minds of people and show them that you can care about a place without going there because your backyard is special, too.”
He encourages people to look around at their backyard and the places they love most. Then, imagine if that landscape was under threat. He uses his home of Lake Tahoe, located on Washoe territory lands, as an example. Lake Tahoe is a beautiful place, but at one point there were plans for a four-lane highway to go over parts of the lake.
“If people didn’t show up and advocate for the protection of this special place, it wouldn’t be what it is today. We can make those connections in our own backyards and understand that places like this in the Arctic are important for the people who are most impacted if it were to be open to development,” said Lagasse.”I think that that’s the bigger message that we can all rally around.”
Ming Poon’s Photo Gallery:
Author: Stacie Sullivan
Stacie always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the ski industry from a young age, having first clicked into skis at the age of 4 and writing her 8th grade career project on being a professional skier. While her dreams of becoming a professional athlete didn’t quite pan out the way she planned at […]