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Environment: A Tale of Two Villages

4 minute read
Eugene Linden/Arctic Village

One of Alaska’s treasures — and a major center of the dispute over oil exploration — is a park the size of eight Yellowstones. Within this vast preserve, called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, lies a 1.5 million-acre section of the coastal plain that the oil industry insists has the greatest potential of any land in the U.S. Only two native villages abut this vast park: Arctic Village, on the southern border in the foothills of the Brooks Range, which is home to 100 Gwich’in members of the Athapaskan Indian group; and Kaktovik, on Barter Island, far to the north at the edge of the Beaufort Sea, where 200 Eskimos live. These two villages, divided about the wisdom of oil exploration, are microcosms of two positions in the battle for the future of Alaska.

When they abandoned their nomadic ways in the early part of this century, the Gwich’in Indians settled on an ancient hunting site in the foothills of the Brooks Range, smack in the middle of the annual migratory path of the Porcupine caribou herd. Prompted by fears that proposed oil development on the coastal plain would interfere with caribou migration and calving, the Gwich’in nation last June convened its first gathering in many generations, and passed a tribal resolution calling upon the Government to prohibit oil exploration or development in the refuge. Says Abel Tritt, a Gwich’in elder: “We don’t worry about ourselves but about the herds, and the animals that depend on the herds. If the herd goes, they go, and then we go.”

Surrounded by vast, empty wilderness, the Gwich’in have only grudgingly allowed the intrusions of modern life. They have moved from caribou tents to log homes, from bows and arrows to rifles, from dogsleds to snowmobiles. But they argue that they can pick and choose from modernity without losing their soul. In 1971, instead of participating in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Gwich’in Indians chose to retain their Delaware-size (1.8 million acres) reservation extending south from the Arctic refuge. Today they have little cash, but Trimble Gilbert, their newly elected chief, believes that history has vindicated their choice. “Money is not really good for native peoples,” he says. “Here you don’t see drugs and alcohol, or suicide and ^ murder. Here people walk around proud that we have our land.”

Still, says Gilbert, the land is nothing without the caribou. “Ever since they are little, Gwich’in are hungry for caribou,” says the chief, speaking of a hunger that is more than a physical appetite. “If there are no caribou, people will not want to live here anymore.” It is for this reason that tribe members oppose oil development. Caribou will not calve near rigs or pipelines, they argue. “Oil does not combine with living things,” says Tritt.

The Eskimos in Kaktovik also hunt caribou, but they depend more heavily on the sea, where captains like Isaac Akootchook go out in 18-ft. boats after seal and bowhead whale. The Inupiat (as they prefer to be called), who chose to participate in the 1971 claims settlement, have benefited from oil revenues in the form of a school, a community center and other projects. “We feel caught in the middle,” says Akootchook. “We don’t like exploration, but if we oppose it and they impose it anyway, we get nothing.”

Thus the Inupiat formally support exploration of the coastal refuge, but with less certainty than before. Their opposition to offshore drilling remains steadfast. What the caribou are to the Gwich’in, whales and seals are to the Inupiat. Some of the village’s ten whaling captains say seismic activity during oil exploration two years ago drove off the bowheads, and they fear a catastrophic spill. “If a well blew here with the wind at 40 knots, how are they going to clean that up?” asks Akootchook.

In the wake of the Valdez spill, many of the villagers have begun to re- examine their backing of drilling elsewhere in the refuge. One of them is Captain Isaac’s daughter Susie Akootchook. “Traveling to and from our camp, I saw how beautiful the refuge was,” she says. “And now with that spill in that beautiful sound, I have changed my position. I would like to see the village vote on it again.”

In both villages there is a feeling that voices are not being heard. “People think, Why fight if it’s going to come anyway?” says Flossie Lampe. The 23-year-old Inupiat, a technician in a plant that manufactures sealed windows, recently bagged her first musk-ox. Now she opposes oil development. “Jobs won’t always be here,” she says, “but you can always go out and hunt.”

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