I am an environmental educator and filmmaker. I directed and produced a short film called The Sacred Place Where Life Begins: Gwich’in Women Speak which advocates for Arctic indigenous Gwich’in women in Alaska and Canada and calls for the permanent protection of their sacred land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from potential oil development. Their way of life depends on this sacred land and through my film they are inspiring audiences around the country to take supportive action.
I have promoted this film on my bicycle over the last two summers, because I love socially and politically driven adventures. Last summer’s adventure was called “1,000 miles for 1,000 allies.” My hope was that by riding 1,000 miles on my bicycle, stopping along the way to show my film at various venues, I would create a community of 1,000 allies along the way. I even prepared myself for spontaneous screening opportunities by inventing a portable theater to show my film anywhere and anytime!
Last summer, I rode solo on my bicycle from Washington D.C. to Bar Harbor, Maine over the course of five weeks. My journey started in D.C. with a surprise invitation to an award ceremony where Sarah James, a Gwich’in elder who is in my film, was to be recognized for her lifetime commitment to protect her people’s sacred place. At the party, I had the most significant political moment of my life – I had the honor of being with Sarah in the presence of Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, as well as President Bill Clinton.
Photographer: Robert Thorpe
Five weeks later, my journey ended in an epic way. I summarized the theme of those five weeks in Haiku (Japanese poetry):
Friendly faces, kind hands
Angels whisper when in trouble
It was July 22nd at 4:00 AM sharp. Ravens woke me up as if asking me to enjoy the last day of my tour. I packed up my stuff and rode out to see the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean. I saw a mama deer with a fawn in the morning sun. It was a quiet, magical and peaceful morning. I rode out to a bus station and held a sign on a piece of paper. It said: “Ellsworth or Portland.” I thought it would be safe to do this in the early morning in Acadia National Park. Some people had an early start and passed by me. Rose, one of the people who came to see my film the night before, drove by. She stopped her car and said that she would take me to Ellsworth. I said, “If you don’t need to go there, no worries. I will take a bus.” She said, “I am just going for a hike today so I don’t really mind.” I told her to enjoy her day and sent her off.
A little after 7:30 AM, the bus showed up. “We can’t take your trailer,” said the driver. I explained to him that this was how I was traveling and that I didn’t have a car. “I have to ride this bus and get as close to Ellsworth as possible, so I can make it to Bangor today to catch another bus to Portland. I have a flight early tomorrow morning from Portland.” He said, “I can’t let you take the trailer. I will get in trouble. It’s against the rules.” I insisted that he help me out. I started to take the wheels off of my trailer so it would look just like a suitcase. Meanwhile, he called his supervisor. The answer was no.
I stood there speechless. All I could think was how the system is set up to make cyclists – minorities on the road – vulnerable. There was nothing I could do. Feeling helpless, I apologized to all the passengers on the bus for the delay that I had caused. I got my bicycle off the rack and wondered what I was going to do – there were 52 miles and lots of up-and-down between here and Bangor. I wouldn’t make the last bus from Bangor to Portland with my 50-pound trailer unless I made no stops.
Right then, a car pulled up behind the bus. It was Rose again. “Did you come back for me?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “I had a feeling that you were in trouble. Here, I can give you a ride. Let’s get your stuff in my car. Everything will fit.” We rearranged her stuff and surely, everything packed in nicely – her stuff, my bicycle, the trailer and me. She took me to Ellsworth and we had a great conversation on the way.
To me, these people are like angels who give me their hands when I am in trouble. This happened constantly throughout my journey and it makes me feel hopeful. We live in a world of despair, injustice, and violence, where people are hurt every day, but when I meet people like Rose, and so many others like her, I believe that the world is a good place, where people look out for each other, even if they’re strangers. The fact is, we are all connected – we are not strangers at all. This reminds me of a plaque with Rachel Carlson’s words that I saw in Wells, Maine. It says:
” . . . all the life of the planet is interrelated, each species has its own ties to others, and . . . all are related to the Earth . . .”
Most people have never heard of the Gwich’in. On my film tour, I saw audiences connecting emotionally to the women on screen, recognizing what it’s like to lose something so important and sacred. This started driving people to want to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Witnessing this inspired me to hop on my bicycle every morning to reach one more person and ride one more mile.
In the end, I rode over one thousand miles on my bicycle that month. I also rode on trains, buses and support vehicles, which enabled me to reach many hundreds of people. In addition, I collected over two thousand signatures on petitions to President Obama as well as Congressional representatives. Behind those numbers is all the love and support that people provided to me.
I am hopeful – even with the news that I heard as I was getting ready to catch my plane from Portland, Maine the very next day: Shell’s Arctic Ocean drilling permit had been approved. The news was a reminder that we have numerous battles to fight, miles of walls to take down and many barriers to break through. Yet there is always hope, as long as there are people who demand justice and peace.
All this was on my mind on a hot humid evening in Washington D.C. the night before I began my journey to Bar Harbor. It led me to ride my bicycle to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and to view the large stone with these engraved words: Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.
In the country where I was born, I write my first name 民穂. The first character 民 (mi) means “people” and is a symbol of democracy. The second character 穂 (ho) means “rice,” which is our staple food and a symbol of our cultural and ecological heritage. My parents chose these two characters as my name with the hope that I would become a protector of people, culture and the environment.
I want to live up to my name. Even when I recognize a mountain of despair, I hope to be a person with optimism and courage who takes action to protect others. Still, on my bicycle film tour, so many people were protecting me. Perhaps that’s what my parents actually intended with my name: a secret wish that I be protected.
Miho Aida, originally from Tokyo, Japan, is an environmental educator, filmmaker, and outdoor adventurer in California. She is recognized for her inspirational media project called “If She Can Do It, You Can Too: Empowering Women Through Outdoor Role Models.” Her award-winning film is titled The Sacred Place Where Life Begins – Gwich’in Women Speak.