Two sides of the oil drilling debate

Native Alaskans: Those who have welcomed the drills and those who have fought them embody the risks and rewards of resource exploitation.

May 07, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska -- In this tiny mountain village of log cabins, snowy paths dotted with spruce trees, one shower and one laundry facility, life is as peaceful and primitive as it gets in the United States.

Here, just south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, live 125 Gwich'in Indians, people who for centuries have lived off the caribou that migrate through their land each year on their way to and from calving grounds in the refuge.

In many ways, the Gwich'in still live as their ancestors did, in houses that have no running water or indoor heating. Plumbing is basically an indoor outhouse system, employing what are euphemistically called "honey buckets." There are no roads in and out, only a small, snow-covered landing strip. Most significantly at the moment, there are no oil dividends -- and that's fine for a tribe that resists being tainted by the modern world.

On the other side of the Brooks Range, on the Arctic Ocean, live the Inupiat Eskimos of Kaktovik, population 250, another group of Native Alaskans struggling to maintain their centuries-old language and traditions against the onslaught of the 21st century.

Just a generation or so away from the nomadic hunter's life, the Inupiat have reaped a fortune from the oil that flows from the vast Prudhoe Bay oil fields to the west -- and now have a fire station, a community center, a police department, a water plant, a power plant, a municipal services building and a modern school that recently spent $11,000 to send its basketball teams on a chartered plane to a regional tournament.

The two Native Alaskan groups stand on opposite sides of the debate over drilling in the remote refuge. They are living symbols of what stands to be lost, and gained, from drilling in the fragile Arctic tundra -- whether a lifestyle long intertwined with the wanderings of a caribou herd can be sustained, or whether that must give way to America's energy needs by accepting drilling in the ANWR, as the refuge is commonly called.

For centuries, the Gwich'in have relied on the Porcupine caribou herd, now 129,000 strong. Caribou meat, skin, fur and bones have been a primary source of food, clothing and shelter here, and the animal is a cultural and spiritual symbol. The Gwich'in people, as well as many scientists and environmentalists, fear that opening the refuge to oil interests will harm the delicate ecosystem and disrupt the caribou's migration pattern, which takes the herd from the Porcupine River Valley in Canada's Yukon Territory to its summer calving grounds in ANWR.

"To make people in the Lower 48 understand what caribou mean to us -- it's like their house, their job. To me, it's part of living, just like water, air, breathing, that basic human feeling about living," said Arctic Village resident Calvin Tritt, who grew up watching his grandfather train a telescope on the Brooks Range each July and remembers the excitement in the village when the tribal elder announced the first caribou coming over the mountain on their way south from the coastal plain.

In Kaktovik, to the north on the Arctic Ocean, people are wedded to a modern lifestyle, and they are worried that without a boost in new oil revenue, the village buildings and infrastructure will deteriorate. "It's an easy life, not like it used to be," said Isaac Akootchook, 79, an Inupiat elder and Presbyterian minister who lived in a sod house as a child and remembers spending much of his day hauling ice for drinking water and wood for fire.

"Now it's good; it's warm all night. You can have 24-hour light if you want it, 24-hour TV if you want it," he said.

All over Alaska, declining oil revenues are hurting municipal and school budgets, a trend fueling calls among state and congressional leaders to open ANWR.

Opening the refuge "has to happen for the longevity of the community, as long as there's strong oversight," said Dale DuFour, the facilities manager at Kaktovik's Kaveolook School, which underwent remodeling in the late 1970s when oil revenues began to roll in.

"Everything you see is from the oil industry" he said, standing in front of a computerized box in the maintenance office that controls the air handling system, heating and fire alarm -- and pages him in emergencies. "This school is here because of the oil industry."

The school itself, named after the first teacher sent by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to educate the Inupiat children, seems to blend the two worlds. It is clean, airy, modern looking and orderly. Symbols of Inupiat traditions contrast with the modern conveniences oil money can buy.

Colorful murals in the style of traditional Eskimo art cover the walls near the main office. They feature caribou, whales, ducks, geese, polar bears, mountains, the coastal plain, sea life and people dancing on the beach and riding snow machines.

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