Native villagers are divided over oil drilling debate.
President Bush’s surprising call during his State of the Union speech Tuesday for America to end its addiction to oil has rekindled debate in Congress among advocates and opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But lost in the discussion once again are the people who would be affected
most — two tiny Native American communities in Alaska whose futures depend on
In Kaktovik, a village at the northern edge of the oil-rich coastal plain of
the refuge, 280 Inupiat Eskimos have been waiting more than 25 years to find
out if they can drill on land they hold inside the refuge.
And the Gwich’in, a caribou-hunting tribe whose 8,000 members are scattered
across 15 villages in Canada and along the refuge’s southern border in Alaska,
fear that drilling in the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd
could jeopardize their major food source and their culture.
Sarah James, a tribal elder in the Gwich’in town of Arctic Village, said she
was relieved by the narrow Senate vote this past December to block drilling
but fears it’s only a temporary reprieve.
“We pray it won’t come back,” James said. “It’s frustrating for us that it
keeps coming back every year.”
Both native groups lobbied vigorously during a heated debate in Congress last
Inupiat leaders in Kaktovik sent a letter to Republican moderates who opposed
drilling, pleading that “the survival of our culture depends on nurturing
new economic activity.”
The Gwich’in held a months-long anti-drilling vigil outside the National
Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
They also circulated a report saying the impact of drilling on the caribou
would violate the tribe’s human rights, much like “the historically genocidal
acts that brought the Plains buffalo to the brink of extinction and violated
the very heart of the Plains tribes’ ancestral way of life.”
The two native communities, however, have much in common:
Both live in remote areas, which has made it tough to develop their
economies. Both have concerns about the impact of drilling on their native traditions
and hunting. And both are frustrated that a decision affecting their future
is in the hands of lawmakers thousands of miles away.
Last summer, The Chronicle visited Kaktovik; Arctic Village, a Gwich’in
village on the refuge’s southern border; and Nuiqsut, an Inupiat town near
Prudhoe Bay that embraced oil drilling years ago, to see what is at stake for
Alaska’s native peoples in the debate over oil drilling that is certain to
If Congress eventually votes to open the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain to
oil drilling, it would be in the backyard of Kaktovik. The village, a cluster of small weather-beaten homes on Barter Island at the frozen edge of the Beaufort Sea, is the only settlement in a refuge the size of South Carolina.
Lon Sonsalla, the bearded, soft-spoken mayor, gets agitated when he hears
lawmakers or environmentalists assert that drilling would harm the coastal
plain. Why, he asks, would he and other residents support a plan that would
destroy the place where they live?
Sonsalla is convinced that oil can be tapped with little impact to the
coastal plain, a rich feeding and breeding area for the caribou and a critical
habitat for polar bears, musk oxen and other Arctic species.
Meanwhile, he said, the oil revenue to the village and the North Slope
Borough, which includes other Inupiat towns such as Barrow, could be used to
improve city services and to provide jobs.
“What we want is what everyone else wants,” he said over lunch at Waldo Arms,
a hotel overlooking the town’s dusty airfield, its only link to the outside
world. “We want a better life for our children and our grandchildren.”
The Inupiat have already reaped some benefits of oil drilling.
For years, they scratched out a living along the north coast by hunting
seals, walrus, seabirds, caribou, Dall sheep and, in the fall, bowhead whale.
When the military arrived in the 1940s to build an early-warning system to
detect a Soviet attack, many Inupiat families still lived in sod houses.
But when Alaska’s oil boom began in the early 1970s, native leaders
negotiated with Congress to settle land claims and assure that some of the oil wealth
trickled down. They formed 13 native corporations, including Arctic Slope
Regional Corp., which encompassed eight Inupiat villages, including Kaktovik.
Oil revenue distributed through the North Slope Borough has helped Kaktovik
pay for its police and fire departments and a health clinic as well as
subsidized housing and heating fuel. In 2003, oil revenue helped bring running
water and sewers to Kaktovik.
But drilling in the coastal plain could have even more of a direct impact:
The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation owns the subsurface rights to 92,000
Town leaders also believe Kaktovik could become the logistics hub for oil
operations across the refuge. They already have proposed building a bigger
James Killbear, a grizzled 36-year-old who is a skilled harpooner on his
father’s whaling boat, hopes Congress opens the refuge to development. He’s had
a tough time finding steady work and sees drilling as his chance to land a
“We’d get a new airport, new buildings, maybe a new road,” he said from his
windswept porch with a sweeping view of the Beaufort Sea. “We could get jobs.”
The residents of Kaktovik have been consistently described as “pro-drilling,”
but some Inupiat oppose drilling or have major concerns. When one resident,
Robert Thompson, circulated a petition to oppose opening the refuge, 57 of
the town’s 188 adults signed it.
One staunch opponent is Mary Margaret Brower, an aide at the health clinic,
who fears an oil boom could worsen social problems such as domestic violence,
alcoholism and drug abuse and cause public health problems.
“If the drilling is too close, we could have increases in asthma, in
breathing problems,” Brower said, noting the impact that drilling has had on air
quality in parts of Prudhoe Bay. “Once we open the door, I don’t think we’ll
have much control over what the oil companies will do.”
The debate over drilling has been complicated by Gov. Frank Murkowski’s
efforts to offer oil and gas leases in state waters 3 miles off the coast. The
Inupiat are whale hunters and are adamantly opposed to offshore drilling.
“Keep it onshore,” said Wayne Kayotuk, who had driven his 4-year-old son,
Sean, to the beach in his four-wheeler. “I’ve seen too many oil spills in other
places, and we don’t need that here.”
If the native leaders of Kaktovik have joined forces with the state of Alaska
and the oil industry, the Gwich’in of Arctic Village have allied with
another powerful group: the environmental movement.
The village is more than 90 miles from the coastal plain, on the other side
of a wedge of steep, snow-covered mountains of the Brooks Range.
Its 150 residents say they have an equal stake in the fight over the refuge
because of their reliance on the Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates across
northwestern Canada and Alaska each spring to reach their summer calving
grounds on the coastal plain.
“We’ve lived off the caribou since the time of our ancestors,” said Jimi
John, one of the town’s most active hunters, chain-smoking in his cabin, where
pelts of animals he trapped hung from the ceiling. “If the caribou go, we go.”
Environmental groups have seized on the Gwich’in concerns about caribou to
make their broader case against drilling. The Wilderness Society warned
recently that drilling would “destroy not only this wilderness, but the culture of
the indigenous people.”
The tribe has capitalized on the interest of environmentalists and the media,
hiring a public relations firm and inviting reporters to tribal gatherings.
On a sunny summer day outside Deena Tritt’s cabin, an Outdoor Life Network
television crew recorded a neighbor carving frozen caribou.
“Gee, that’s a long video they’re making,” said Tritt, who was cooking
caribou stew and frying moose meat for the crew while her daughter, Allison, 9,
In recent weeks, she had hosted film crews from Japan, France, Italy,
Switzerland and Germany.
But the Gwich’in are not your typical environmentalists, as evidenced when
Jimi John demonstrated how he delivers a sharp blow to the head to kill martens
caught in his fur traps.
He once shot three musk oxen — a threatened species that is strictly
regulated, with only about 60 left in the refuge — and had to spend 30 days in
jail and pay a $1,000 fine.
“The town was starving,” he said. “No one had any meat.”
While the tribe has become a symbol of opposition to drilling, the Gwich’in
of a nearby village, Venetie, leased some of their land for oil drilling in
the 1980s but never found a major deposit. Tribal leaders now say they regret
But the tribe has also spurned offers to cash in on their land. In the 1970s,
residents of Arctic Village and Venetie, unlike those in Kaktovik, decided
not to sign on to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, forfeiting their
share of $1 billion and future dividends in order to fight for their claims of
1.8 million acres of land.
The tribe still struggles economically. There are few year-round jobs in
Arctic Village, and almost half of its residents live below the poverty level.
The town has electricity and phone service, but it lacks running water and
sewers; most residents still use honey buckets or outhouses. Residents share a
solar-powered washateria for showers and laundry.
But the Gwich’in say they are proof that people can survive without oil
drilling or other resource-intense development.
“What good is a million-dollar checkbook when you’re out in the mountains?
How will it help you survive?” said Marion Swaney, who happily shows visitors
her freezer full of moose, caribou, ducks and other meat, most of it shot by
her husband, Charlie. “We may be poor, but we’re rich in animals.”
The Swaneys straddle the modern and traditional worlds. Charlie, a lanky 47,
still hunts most days or sets fishnets along the river. But their son, Rocky,
19, surfs the Internet, and the family gets hundreds of channels on
Charlie said he was happy when the town’s diesel generator broke down and
they lost power for three weeks one Christmas, forcing the village to return to
its tradition of holding community potlucks.
“Things have changed since computers, TV, satellite dishes,” he said. “The
one thing that hasn’t changed is our subsistence hunting.”
“The only thing that is going to change, that is, if the caribou aren’t there
Those curious about how drilling could affect the native peoples of Kaktovik
and Arctic Village should look west to Nuiqsut, an Inupiat village on the
North Slope that began its own experiment with oil drilling a decade ago.
When drilling was proposed just outside the town limits in the early 1990s,
Nuiqsut residents were told it would boost their fortunes. There would be jobs
in the oil fields. They would receive dividend checks from oil revenue. And
the oil companies said drilling would not affect the environment or
A decade later, many residents say the reality has not matched the promises.
The dividend checks have come in, but villagers complain the amount is lower
than promised. Few locals have jobs at the Alpine oil field, just 7 miles
from Nuiqsut. They also are increasingly concerned that drilling is driving
caribou further away.
“The oil is good in some ways,” said Johnny Ahtuangaruak, a 76-year-old
elder, speaking in his native language interpreted by his nephew. Oil revenue has
helped pay for fire and police services and a health clinic, he said.
But rather than transforming the town, many residents say it has reinforced
existing social problems, such as alcoholism and drug abuse, while failing to
lift the village out of poverty.
“Other villages think we are millionaires, but we are not,” Ahtuangaruak
said, leaning on his cane in the gravel driveway of his family’s ramshackle
house, where caribou hides hung from a clothesline. “We are still living at
Nuiqsut, 35 miles south of the Beaufort Sea, is remote even by Alaskan
standards. As in Kaktovik and Arctic Village, most supplies have to be flown in,
which explains why a half gallon of milk sells for $7.35.
But the village sits atop one of the nation’s largest oil fields: To the east
is Prudhoe Bay, which has produced more than 13 billion barrels of oil, and
to the west is the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which has 23.5 million
acres of oil-rich terrain.
As the oil fields have moved closer, many residents say they feel like they
live in an industrial zone. “When they first came into Nuiqsut, they said they
would only drill in Alpine,” said Eli Nukapigak, the vice mayor.
He showed maps of newly proposed drilling sites and pipeline extensions that
line the walls of the community center. “Now, they say they have found oil in
other areas, right in the heart of our subsistence hunting grounds,” he
said. “The ones that will be hurt will be the younger generation. They will have
to go further and further away to do their hunting.”
The village, in a sense, was a creation of Alaska’s oil boom. When oil
companies made their big discovery at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, the Inupiat feared the
state and the Interior Department would claim vast tracts of the North Slope.
In April 1973, 27 families left Barrow, the major city in the North Slope
Borough, to stake out a settlement on a bluff overlooking the Colville River,
which they called Nuiqsut — “beautiful place over the horizon” in Inupiat.
They spent the first year and a half in a tent city, surviving a blizzard.
“The people in Barrow thought we would starve,” Ahtuangaruak recalled. But
during the first winter, a herd of caribou came right through the village,
which the Inupiat saw as a sign.
“Everyone started shooting, and they had their caribou,” Ahtuangaruak said.
“They came to us.”
Over time oil development inched closer. In 1993, the Atlantic Richfield Oil
Corp. announced it had discovered the Alpine oil field.
Arco promised to develop only 115 acres of the entire 40,000-acre oil field,
using sophisticated directional drilling to reach pockets of oil thousands of
feet deep and miles away. It also vowed to minimize damage to the tundra by
building ice roads each winter to transport equipment.
But environmental groups and some villagers dispute the claim that the site,
now run by ConocoPhillips, is pollution-free.
Villagers have complained of an increase in asthma, especially among
children. Residents say during winter inversions, a yellowish fog hangs over the
area. The company has been fined by the state for exceeding carbon monoxide
“In winter you can really notice the haze,” said Sarah Kunaknana, 84, while
watching “The Price is Right” in her home.
Kunaknana, who once had her own dog team, has framed photos on the wall of
caribou she has shot. Like other residents, she complains that the caribou have
shifted away from developed areas.
“We think the migration routes have changed because of the pipelines,” she
said. “They used to come right up here.”
Supporters of drilling say some complaints are overblown. Isaac Nukapigak,
president of the village’s native-owned corporation, a partner in developing
Alpine, said a company-sponsored air monitoring program had shown no major
problems in air quality near the village.
For many residents, the biggest disappointment has been economic.
Only about a dozen work full-time at Alpine.
“The majority of the people they hire are from Texas or from Anchorage and
Fairbanks,” said Doreen Nukapigak. “They are not living up to their agreement.”
But the reasons are more complex. Some villagers have been unable to adjust
to industrial jobs and quit when work interferes with caribou hunts or fishing
Despite a local ban on alcohol, residents say alcoholism and drug use are
major problems. Shipments of drugs or liquor often coincide with the arrival of
dividend checks. Some villagers have been unable to pass the oil company’s
mandatory drug test.
“It’s a matter of getting them cleaned up,” Isaac Nukapigak said. “There are
opportunities out there to grab.”
Nukapigak said that three of his children worked at Alpine.
“The money is pretty good,” said his daughter, Takpaan Nukapigak, 23. Her
wages as an oil field roughneck are helping her pay off her truck and raise her
4-year-old daughter, Caitlyn. “They treat me like one of the guys. It’s like
a big family.”
A frequent complaint of villagers is that promises of larger dividends from
oil revenues have never been fulfilled.
Residents say dividend checks usually total about $2,000 a year, which
doesn’t go far in a town where gas can cost $5 a gallon.
The village corporation claims that much of the town’s oil wealth is being
invested in native-owned businesses, stocks and other holdings to be able to
pay dividends in the future.
“The oil won’t be there forever,” Isaac Nukapigak said.