EDITOR’S NOTE - The U.S. Senate is considering a proposal to
EDITOR’S NOTE - The U.S. Senate is considering a proposal to open the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Caught in the debate are two Alaska Native villages whose people have lived off the bounty of the coastal plain for centuries. One fears that drilling will threaten the caribou at the heart of their culture; the other welcomes a much-desired economic opportunity.
Undated (AP) _ By T.A. BADGER Associated Press Writer
KAKTOVIK, Alaska (AP) - It’s hard to argue with what oil has done for this small Inupiat Eskimo village in Alaska’s northeast corner.
When villagers get sick, they visit a spacious modern clinic. When a house catches fire, trained and well-equipped firefighters come to the rescue. When elderly residents must go out or have something delivered, a minivan drives up.
In many ways, the 225 people of Kaktovik live as their ancestors did. Their seasons still revolve around hunting, fishing and boating out among the ice floes in pursuit of seals and bowhead whales.
But they’ve grown to rely on modern conveniences that cost money - pickup trucks, four-wheelers, motorboats and gas-powered stoves. And on Alaska’s North Slope - larger than Utah, with a population about 6,000 - nearly all the money flows out of the ground as black gold.
Kaktovik, a small grid of gravel streets and wood-frame houses, sits next to what could be a multibillion-barrel oilfield on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
And with the decline of the giant Prudhoe Bay field, 75 miles to the west, many here see proceeds from drilling in the Arctic Refuge - taxes, service contracts and leases - as a way to pay the bills.
″We don’t live in the 1950s any more - there’s a lot of progress going on outside and it’s bypassing us,″ said a villager, Joe Soplu. ″Our economy isn’t keeping up.″
But others aren’t so concerned with keeping up. They fear that drilling on the coastal plain, where 180,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd travel hundreds of miles each spring to drop their calves, could trash their traditions.
The Gwich’in Athabaskan Indians of Arctic Village, about 150 miles south of Kaktovik and on the other side of the Brooks Range, are among the naysayers.
Caribou remains the primary food source for the village’s 100 residents and a vital link between the life they have inherited from generations of forebears and the one they want to pass on to their children.
″They’re the reason Arctic Village is here - people settled here because of the Porcupine herd,″ said village chief Trimble Gilbert.
The days are past when a failed hunt meant villagers would go hungry in the long, harsh winter 120 miles above the Arctic Circle. A daily flight from Fairbanks keeps the village’s two small groceries and coffee shop well- stocked.
But there is also a religious side to the issue.
″Our route to God is through the caribou,″ says Lincoln Tritt, the village’s postmaster and a former village chief.
The herd’s range covers tens of thousands of square miles, and in most years caribou pass close enough to Arctic Village to be easily hunted.
″Here is the westernmost part of the migration route and it may move further east, or (the caribou) may decide to stick around the developed area,″ said Tritt. ″Either way, we never see them again.″
But Herman Aishanna, vice president of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp, dismisses the notion that oil exploration could harm the Porcupine herd.
″When they were having the first hearings about the (Arctic Refuge) lease sales, everyone was against it, but it seems the fears aren’t valid any more,″ he said. He believes the oil companies at Prudhoe Bay ″have done everything they can to conserve the animals.″
The village corporation has a potentially lucrative stake in any exploration. It owns 92,000 acres adjacent to the coastal plain.
″Everybody needs money, and oil would provide employment for KIC shareholders,″ said Aishanna, who also is Kaktovik’s mayor.
″We have a lot of young, energetic people here who don’t have jobs. We need better snow removal and a better docking facility for boats. We need natural gas hooked up to every house and better doors and windows. All of these things cost lots of money.″
Not all of Aishanna’s constituents agree. Jane Thompson, the village’s most vocal opponent of refuge drilling, said she doesn’t like what she foresees.
″There will be rules and regulations where there aren’t any now,″ she said. ″There’s going to be noise 24 hours a day, there’s going to be metal trees (drilling rigs) sticking up. It’s going to be ugly.
″It will take away the grounds where we go fishing and hunting and camping - that’s the main thing to me,″ she said.
There are also fears that oil may push isolated Kaktovik into Alaska’s mainstream and bring with it an unimagined crop of social ills.
″I’m afraid of drugs and alcohol coming in,″ said City Clerk Mary Soplu, who says she is still undecided about drilling in the Arctic Refuge. ″If an area like Prudhoe is built, the workers will be allowed to bring in their own supplies. Eventually they’ll bring things over here.″
Arctic Village, like Kaktovik, is officially dry. But drinking and drug abuse are still widespread, as are unemployment and teen pregnancy.
Residents say the caribou figure strongly into any recovery.
″In order to solve our problems, we have to feel proud as a people,″ said Sarah James, head of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, representing 15 tribal villages in Alaska and Canada. ″It is important that we identify ourselves with the herd, and if it goes, we will probably have greater problems.″
The Gwich’in have been following the debate over the Arctic Refuge - a debate primarily between politicians and conservationists in faraway cities. Some Gwich’in have traveled as far as Washington, D.C., to tell the tribe’s side of the story, but they’re not sure the decision-makers are listening.
″I feel like we’re being ignored - we’re out of the whole process,″ James said. ″They never hold hearings in Gwich’in communities. We feel really powerless and not very important.″
Gideon James, Sarah’s brother and the tribal chief governing the 1.8 million-acre Venetie Indian Reservation that includes Arctic Village, said his opposition to drilling goes beyond the caribou herd.
″Fish, timber, oil - the state is just selling out,″ he said. ″It’s not in the best interest of Alaska to have more development - they’ll take the resources and get a few dollars for it, and when the money’s gone, everything is gone.″
The people of Arctic Village harbor no anger toward Inupiats who are pushing for drilling. The Eskimos, they believe, know not what they do.
Sarah James said she had a message for her northern neighbors - one of unity rooted in a common legacy.
″I’m Native and you’re Native, and I know how much the land means to you and how much it means to me,″ she said. ″We can’t destroy it and can’t take too much from it. It’s better that we go against development together than both of us lose eventually.″