Wainwright, Alaska. Rebecca "Ricky" Ekak, a tenth grader at Alak High School in Wainwright, implored her teacher, "Please, can we learn more about this? What they said went into me." Ricky and her classmates are Inupiat ("In-OU-pe-at" or "Eskimo").
Wainwright is one of eight Inupiat villages at the top of the world or at least the top of America. The largest and most northern village—and probably the only one on most U.S. maps—is Barrow with 4,000 people. All of the villages are well above the Arctic Circle. Five sit on the wind-swept coast of the Arctic Ocean.
I am visiting the villages with Earl Kingik, an Elder from Point Hope, which lies 500 miles west of Barrow, and Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the former mayor of Nuiqsut, which lies 130 miles southeast of Barrow and 12 miles inland.
Earl is a whaling captain, a revered position that translates into community leader. He opens our meetings in his first language, Inupiaq. Then he effortlessly switches to English to explain that we have come as volunteers on this 1,000-plus mile circuit to warn the communities of a threat to their way of life and culture.
Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush opened the vast bulk of the North Slope—23 million acres onshore and 73 million acres offshore—to oil and gas lease sales and development. What started as a paper shuffle in Washington, DC, is now arriving in the villages as promises of "environmentally-sound development," borne by oilmen and federal officials.
Rosemary and I live in communities that have experienced first-hand the impacts from broken promises. Rosemary's village of Nuiqsut ("new-WICK-sit") is 60 miles west of Prudhoe Bay, where oil and gas development has occurred for over 40 years. As the oilfields expanded, Nuiqsut felt the pressure like the slow relentless squeeze of an anaconda.
"The first oil well was over 60 miles from the village," she explains to our audiences. "That wasn't so bad. But then they wanted another well. They came to our village and told us one well would mean a 12-acre gravel pad, no road, 200 people to build the well, and 20 airplane and helicopter flights a month during our hunting season."
Her black eyes snap but her voice remains even as she says, "That's not what we got. We got 400 acres of gravel pads, miles of pipelines, 12 miles of roads, a large runway, two helicopter pads, 1,200 people, and 1,900 flights in six weeks during the caribou migration."
When she mimics the noise from the seismic testing—BOOM! BOOM!—the children all jump. The caribou changed their migratory route to avoid the commotion of development. Before the seismic tests and pipelines, 97 of 103 households in her village harvested caribou; after, only three.
Before the seismic tests in the ocean, village hunters—the whalers—harvested whales within 2 miles of the island; after, the whales moved 20 miles or more offshore. Twenty miles is too far from the village to safely harvest whales. When storms blew up, the whalers would have to stop hunting as small boats can easily swamp.
Rosemary's voice breaks only when she shares her personal story. The place where her oldest son, his father, and his grandfather harvested their first caribou is now a gravel mine. Her oldest son was nine when the caribou herds last migrated through the village. He is now twenty-four.
Subsistence—harvesting, sharing, and celebrating wild foods—is the primary means of survival in all of the villages. As Earl says, "The ocean is our garden." Everyone understands that loss of traditional foods and loss of the opportunity to harvest the food means loss of their way of life. Loss of resources fits the United Nations definition of cultural genocide.
There are also health problems in Nuiqsut associated with the oil development. Rosemary is a former community health aide practitioner. She was the first to sound the alarm about the skyrocketing cases of asthma as the oil wells marched ever closer to Nuiqsut. The closest wells with their flaring gases and air pollution are now within four miles of—and almost surround—the village.
The refrain we hear from the other villages is: "We don't want to happen here what happened in Nuiqsut!" But unless other Americans act to intervene, the Inupiat culture will almost surely be assimilated.
Millions of Americans are protesting the Bush administration's headlong rush to open coastal seas of California, Virginia, Florida, and other Lower 48 states to oil and gas development. These well-meaning citizens don't realize that a coastal moratorium in the Lower 48 only means more pressure to develop in Alaska.
Why don't we all learn more about Bush's U.S. Arctic Policy along with Inupiat children like Ricky? If the Alaska story "went into you," maybe you could help protect our coasts along with yours.
The U.S. Interior Department is accepting comments on the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas (Arctic Ocean) Oil & Gas Lease Sales until March 16, 2009. We are all in this together.