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Drilling in Alaska: Over Dead Gwich'in Bodies

by Jon Lurie, Anchorage Press

on possible oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Location of ANWR A typical air journey to Arctic Village, Alaska, from Washington D.C. transfers in Chicago and Anchorage, and arrives in Fairbanks 10-12 hours later. At Fairbanks travelers hire a cab for a five-minute, $13 lift to the opposite side of the airport, where a tiny commuter plane offers one scheduled flight per day to the settlement on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The two-hour coaster ride in an eight-seat Cessna Caravan tracks a 10-degree course over a tangle of suburban neighborhoods cut fresh from the thick forests of the Tanana Valley. It then climbs out over the trackless White Mountains and traverses the seemingly infinite wetlands of the Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge, to the snowy foothills of the Brooks Range, where each year over 100,000 Porcupine Caribou wonder on their annual migration.

As the blinding tundra rises to dominate the Cessna's oval windows, the plane banks sharply into the lush, spruce covered valley of the ice-jammed East Chandalar River. Following the riverbanks, the plane reaches an impressive gravel airstrip and a small collection of log homes perched above a sharp bend.

After landing, the final transfer into the cargo bay of a beat-up pickup for the mile drive to town costs $5 ($2 for locals), and brings the total price of the 6000 mile journey to upwards of $2000.

This remote settlement of 150 Gwich'in Indians, a community which relies on subsistence hunting and fishing, would seem an unlikely place for an argument between federal government officials and the head of a major non-profit organization, whose D.C. offices are only minutes apart.

Strange Bedfellows
When National Wildlife Federation president Mark Van Putten entered the log-hewn Arctic Village community hall on the afternoon of June 1, he happened upon an unhappy looking group of young Alaska Natives facing-off with members of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission across a long table.

In town for the night awaiting a tour of the refuge, the meeting was purely coincidental but fortuitous. Van Putten's organization has been accused by some environmentalists of doing too little too late in the battle to save the refuge. While the organization has opposed drilling for years, it wasn't until six months ago that the middle-of-the-road conservation group voted to seek a wilderness designation for the coastal plain, giving it further protection from development. Van Putten was eager to make up for lost time.

"[Alaska's] Senator Murkowski's always asking his opponents if they've ever been to the refuge," Van Putten said, "I want to be able to say I have."

The long faced commissioners, most elderly white men, were receiving a stern lashing from a boy-faced Gwich'in man who, in no uncertain terms, made sure they understood whose country they were in.

"When your people first came here we treated you well. But the history of the way you've treated us hasn't been so good. Your commission was created in 1984, but this is the first time you've been here to talk to us. There's been a long history of commissions disrespecting us and overlooking us," scolded the charismatic young man.

Taped to the walls beyond the uncomfortably shifting commissioners were messages the village's children had scrawled with colorful markers:

"We always live with the caribou, we are Gwich'in; Time of joy when the caribou return happy; There is no price tag for Birth Place; Gwich'in way of life need to be protected."

The articulate young man, Arctic Village's 25-year-old chief Evon Peter, unleashed on the dumbfounded commissioners with precocious confidence.

"Any future decisions need to be made in consultation with us. We not only request to have a say, we demand it."

Finally, Peter asked that the commission, which was touring northeastern Alaska to learn about the effects of climate change on the Arctic, recommend to the president he drop plans to allow oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

Indignant commissioners begged to differ with Peter, claiming it wasn't their job to recommend anything to the president. Van Putten suddenly rose from his wooden bench and declared, "With all due respect commissioners that is precisely your job."

When Van Putten's guide, biologist Pamela A. Miller was introduced, she implored the commission to listen to the Gwich'in people, who have lived in harmony with their lands for thousands of years.

"The Gwich'in are acting on the support of knowledge based on what has happened to the lands that are now the North Slope oil fields," Miller said.

While the white visitors exchanged barbs, Chief Peter bit his lip, waiting for them to stop fighting over his people's country. Sarah James, the sole Gwich'in elder present, diffused the prickliness by admonishing both sides.

"We still speak for ourselves. This is human rights versus oil. We need to let the world know what oil is doing to us and to them."

Before the ensuing silence became uncomfortable, James called for a prayer.

"I'm going to say a few things in my God-given words."

The room went silent while James prayed in the Gwich'en language for peace, for the sacred earth and all its creatures.

"In the name of our lord Jesus Christ," she concluded in English. "Amen."

Divide and Conquer
Gwich'in man "Divide and conquer, that's what they try to do to the tribes. Get them fighting each other," said Gwich'in community leader Faith Gemmill. "But this is not an Indian versus Eskimo issue. This is about our right to self-determination and to continue to live in our culture."

Gemmill warns reporters and other visitors that they're on Gwich'in land, and are not allowed to roam through town or on other parts of the reservation without local escort or permission of the chief.

In absence of a law enforcement system, the containment of outsiders on the Venetie Reservation is seen an essential to maintaining peace and security. Among many other responsibilities, Gemmill acts as a poster child for the reporters that have been visiting Arctic Village with increasing frequency. While she's not particularly fond of cameras, Gemmill's sacrifice serves to shield her people from the disruption that accompanies media scrutiny.

Gemmill bristles at reporters when they ask questions which imply her people are hypocrites for using gas and oil in their electric generators, snow machines, and 4-wheelers, while opposing drilling in the refuge. One of Arctic Village's top priorities, she tells them, is energy self-sufficiency. But the conversion to solar and wind energy will require hundreds of thousands of dollars they don't have. In the mean time, empty diesel barrels accumulate in pits around the village, a daily reminder of the ugly side effects of non-renewable energy.

National Security
The fight over control of the 19.8 million-acre Arctic Refuge has become a war of words, with both the Gwich'in and US politicians calling victory essential to the future of their nations.

The Gwich'in, to whom the porcupine caribou are a sacred and irreplaceable aspect of their subsistence culture, view any threat to the calving grounds as an act of genocide.

Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, who introduced legislation last March to open the Coastal Plain to drilling, argues that turning our backs to the supposed riches of oil beneath the plain was a "prescription for economic and national security disaster."

The refuge has been off-limits to oil development since President Lyndon Johnson first established it as the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960. Jimmy Carter expanded the range from 8.9 million acres to 18 million acres in 1980, when he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The Act changed the name of the protected wilderness from "range" to "refuge" and grew to include the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou and home to 36 species of land animals (including polar, black, and brown bear, muskoxen and two caribou breeds), 180 species of birds, and dozens of species of fish in 18 major rivers.

But Carter had compromised with members of Congress to get the Act passed. He agreed to set aside the coastal plain, the so-called 1002 Area, which could, at any time, be opened for development by act of Congress.

Estimates on the amount of oil that might be hiding beneath the caribou calving grounds are as high as Sen. Murkowski's 16 billion barrels. Many experts believe that figure to be a pipe dream.

But what Murkowski wants matters a little less these days. On June 4, the four term Republican lost his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee after Vermont senator James Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an independent, thereby shifting the balance of power in Congress to the Democrats.

New senate majority leader Tom Daschle wasted little time in proclaiming the Republican-led effort to open the Arctic Refuge "finished." But even with the power shift in Washington, there are many among the Gwich'in who say they can't afford to ease off the struggle.

Arctic Natives Divided Over Oil Drilling
"I don't know about the rest of the village," said Sarah James after the commission meeting, "but I don't think we can ever stop fighting for the refuge. It's too important. We need those caribou to come back to us healthy each year in order for our people to live."

But Chief Peter, the youngest chosen leader of Gwich'in people in recent history, said he feels the time has come to put the refuge issue to bed and deal with other problems facing his people, such as global warming and carcinogens in the arctic environment.

"To me we've already won [on the refuge issue]. We've shifted momentum away from the oil developers. But even more importantly, our people have traveled the world and have made many friends and allies. In doing so we have had the opportunity to teach the Gwich'in philosophy.

"Gwich'in are raised to look at the world in terms of the relationships we have with people, animals, the land, and the spirits. If you live a life where all of these relationships are in balance then you have fulfilled what it means to be Gwich'in."

While Peter admits taking responsibility for the well being of the village can be unnerving, he's been preparing for years. The son of a Jewish father and Gwich'in mother, Peter was born in Los Angeles where he spent the first four years of his life before moving back to the Venetie Reservation.

"My dad tried to live here with us for a while," joked Peter's sister Princess, a 27-year-old screen writer, "but he was kind of skinny and couldn't handle the cold."

Peter spent his youth learning from elders the ways of his Gwich'in ancestors. "By the time I was 13, I was a full-grown man. I could survive on my own. I could hunt and take care of myself. I told my mom I didn't need her any more. At 16 all my teachers and counselors agreed that there was nothing left for me in high school, and they all said it was time for me to leave."

Peter entertained offers from several prestigious universities, but after a short stint on the East Coast decided he "couldn't handle living in the Lower 48." He enrolled at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, earned a bachelor's degree and promptly returned to Arctic Village to help his people.

Shortly thereafter, the community's traditional leaders nominated him to be chief. A village-wide election was held in which he prevailed. After gaining the consent of the reservation's traditional leaders, he was declared chief.

"At first the whole village was in a state of shock. In an instant I went from being just me to being in this position. It took several weeks for everybody to adjust," Peter said. In addition to his unpaid role as village leader, Peter also serves on over a dozen boards and commissions, works as a consultant on Arctic issues, and has a 4-year-old son he supports through subsistence hunting and fishing.

His work takes him around the world, but he stays in touch with his tiny staff via the Internet, which he calls key to lifting Arctic Village's economic isolation.

While the community needs some cash, Peter says it will remain subsistence-based. "We've always lived here in this way," he said, "and we're not about to change."

Peter says his goal is to reach beyond the borders of the 1.8 million acre Venetie Reservation, and teach the world that small, quasi-sovereign communities can be self-governing, self-sustaining, and function in good relations with its neighbors. We've already proven that large, concentrated populations don't work well for those who live there or for the earth. The next step is to go back to small, self-governing communities."

The struggle of over the Arctic Refuge, Peter said, is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. "Our plan has always been to survive and pass on to the next generation whatever knowledge they need to survive." With few elders in the village to hand down traditional teachings, that's easier said than done. The burden falls on the shoulders of Evon Peter and Faith Gemmill.

After the Arctic Commission departs, a handful of teenagers push the tables and chairs aside then gathers in a circle to learn a song, they are told, "the people used to sing but haven't sung in a long time -- an old song that our people learned when they were starving."

The lesson breaks down when nobody can remember exactly how it goes. It appears Gemmill and Peter are sadly out of their depth. Then somebody runs off to fetch an elder and promptly returns with an wizened woman named Mary on her arm who sets the attentive group straight. The kids fill the hall with vibrant dance and ancient, powerful song.

The drum mingles with the sounds of little children playing street baseball for hours -- until the sun, which never really set, rises again on the other side of the valley.

A Necessary Evil
The next morning, Van Putten, Miller and the other members of the National Wildlife Federation delegation meet at the airstrip for their tour of the Arctic Refuge.

Other than Pamela Miller, who has worked in the refuge as a biologist and more recently as a guide, it's everyone's first trip to the fabled wilderness. Last year, according to Fish and Wildlife records, only 591 people visited the refuge on guided trips. Because of interest fueled by the political debate, up to fifty-percent more visitors are expected this summer.

The blue and white DeHavilland Beaver climbs up the East Chandalar River Valley, across the refuge's southern boundary, and into the snowcapped Romanzof Mountains. Upon leveling off at 10 thousand feet, the Beaver picks its way through a maze of alpine peaks, then descends down the backside of the continental divide to the vast, snow-covered coastal plain. Below, a huge brown bear, spooked by the airplane, gallops majestically across the open tundra. The pilot follows the wild Jago River north towards the Beaufort Sea. A few minutes later he extends the landing skis and sets the beaver down on the coastal plain of the 1002 Area.

The group steps gingerly from the plane, as if they're crewmembers from the Starship Enterprise arriving on an unfamiliar planet. At first they huddle near the plane, and eat a lunch of bagels, cheese, and jerky.

Eventually, each individual hikes off in a separate direction to inspect a tuft of the colorful tundra, or watch the myriad of birds that flutter and sing all around.

This is the area Senator Murkowski told Congress looked like a white sheet of paper.

"The attitude people have about the natural environment often dictates what they see," says Van Putten. "Those who come with visions of exploitation will see it as a sheet of paper if that's what they wish it to be."

"If you look closely, the diversity of plant life on the coastal plain is astounding. If you're quiet you'll see the larkspur and the ptarmigan, and an owl will fly overhead. If you're attentive you'll find what at first appears to be barren to actually be very much alive."

After an hour the temperature's inching towards 40 degrees, and it's time to go before the snow gets too sticky to take off. After a mile of bumping and fighting, the snow relents and the Beaver heads west to the Canning River, a braided master piece that adorns the western edge of the refuge. Across the crystal water, lines scratched in the tundra by seismic crews scar the earth as far as the eye can see.

The delegation is quiet as they return to Arctic Village treated by the natural jewels of the refuge: clear rushing rivers and waterfalls, lush, colorful valleys, and breathtaking alpine peaks populated by a clambering Dall sheep -- a complete, seemingly untouched ecosystem working perfectly without help from anyone.

Van Putten looks out his window pensively.

"It's clear to me now that even a small footprint, as Bush likes to call the impact of drilling, would totally alter the nature of this place. The biggest lie is that we can partially change the Coastal Plain without altering the whole ecosystem. This place is so rare it's priceless."

A Simple Solution
While the remoteness of Gwich'in territory has shielded them from many of the hardships experienced by other Native American nations, elder Gideon James says bad news is pouring into their territory from above.

"When I was a kid the sun was not this hot. Now it burns our skin. The leaves on the blueberry plant used to be green, now you see them and they're red. We have to realize we're destroying the Earth's atmosphere. New sicknesses that we never had before have been afflicting our people. When I was a boy I never got any of these sicknesses. I never even got a common cold."

James, 63, says the answer to many of the issues facing the Gwich'in and the American people, could be easily solved by a commitment to conserve more by consuming less.

"We're not short of energy. We have to get our energy habits under control. Everybody wants to be a millionaire. There aren't enough resources on this planet for everyone to be a millionaire. Dick Cheney made $140 million last year alone. What need can any man have for that much money?"

James lives in a large log home with wood heat and -- like everyone else in Arctic village -- no running water.

"Every time I go to a store I can hardly believe it. Look at Kmart or Wal-Mart; when are we going to realize we don't need most of these things they're trying to sell us?"

Before 1950, most Gwich'in didn't speak English. Families lived a nomadic existence, hunting and fishing as they moved freely throughout the northwestern Yukon and the area that is now the Arctic Refuge. After missionaries convinced Gwich'in parents that their children would be better off in school, and settlements like Arctic Village, Venetie, and nearly a dozen other villages were born along the path of the annual Caribou migration. The Gwich'in adapted their spirituality to Episcopal forms of prayer. An entire generation suffered in boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their language and practice their traditions. Despite the hardships that accompanied these changes, the Gwich'in continued to live largely as they had for centuries.

As a young man Gideon James served in the U.S. Army. After discharge in 1963, he served in tribal government for 30 years, and continues to make frequent journeys to the tribal council in Venetie to contribute his expertise. But unlike the young Gwich'in leaders, James isn't optimistic when considering the fate of his descendants.

"Is there any bright future for our kids? It doesn't look good. If we face the facts, it doesn't look good anymore."

Chief Evon Peter agrees things can look hopeless at times, especially, he says, when he's away from home.

"But every time I return to this beautiful middle of nowhere, my nation, my home, I feel so happy because I am free."

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Albion Monitor July 19, 2001 (

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