Wainwright, Alaska. "We'll have to give you an Eskimo name if you like our food!" Kenneth "Kenny" Tagarook teased as he sliced another piece of frozen raw caribou meat for me with his ulu - a hand-sized, flat piece of metal with a small handle opposite the sharp, curved edge.
Kenny and his wife Ann are Inupiat ("In-OU-pe-at" or "Eskimo"). They are hosting me and Kenny's cousin Rosemary Ahtuangaruak during our visit in Wainwright. The village of 520 mostly Inupiat people lies along Alaska's North Slope over 200 miles above the Arctic Circle.
The site was settled by Kenny's ancestors over 100 years ago as Olgoonik, an Inupiaq name for "where the land slopes to the sea." The landmark bluff overlooking the Chukchi Sea is nearly indistinguishable now as the sea ice is packed in successive ridges that press firmly against the shore. Earlier, the biting cold (-39 with wind chill) had shortened our walk along the bluff.
"Did you try the bearded seal?" Rosemary asked. I picked up a marble-sized bit of dark brown meat, dried and frozen. Rich opaque oil coated my fingers. The seal meat was dense and delicious. "I love our food," said Rosemary, her black eyes sparkling and her mouth full.
The food is part of the culture and the culture is why Rosemary and I are visiting Wainwright and other Inupiat villages along the Arctic Ocean. Wainwright has been spared the oil and gas development - and cultural impacts - of villages to the east near Prudhoe Bay.
But that may soon change. Forty million acres of the Chukchi Sea may soon be leased to oil and gas development along with another 33 million acres of the neighboring Beaufort Sea. Together, these lease sales open the entire Arctic Ocean to oil and gas development.
The Chukchi Sea teems with sea life. In spring and fall, bowhead and beluga whales migrate along the coast. The vast ocean is a rich feeding area for gray, humpback, and fin whales, walrus and ringed, bearded, and spotted seals. Millions of migratory birds from across the U.S., central and South America, and even Antarctica rear their young in the brief Arctic summer. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas support 20 percent of the world's polar bears.
The Inupiat people lovingly refer to the ocean as "our garden." But there are problems in the "garden" in the Beaufort Sea to the east.
Rosemary lives in Nuiqsut ("new-WICK-sit"), a village over 600 miles to the east of Wainwright and near Prudhoe Bay. The ever-expanding oilfields with their associated airplane and helicopter traffic, airports, roads, pipelines, gravel mines, noise, and flares have altered the landscape and the ways the animals use the land. Seismic tests push migratory caribou farther south, away from Nuiqsut, and migratory bowhead whales further north, out to sea. Causeways and gravel islands divert migratory fish away from the coast. Loss of traditional foods means loss of a way of life - and loss of a human right to protect a culture.
Kenny and Ann worry about what is happening in Nuiqsut at the northern end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline - and what happened in Prince William Sound at the southern end of the pipeline. Oil from the Exxon Valdez is still buried on the beaches of the Sound and most of the wildlife injured by the spill 20 years ago still has not fully recovered.
Twenty years without traditional foods is unthinkable to Inupiat people like Kenny and Ann, yet Wainwright is slated to become the next Nuiqsut - an industrial complex - and oil spills come oil development.
Large-scale industrial development is simply not compatible with large-scale wilderness and the Inupiat culture. We can have one or the other, but not both in the same place. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently indicated that the offshore oil-drilling plan left by the Bush administration will likely be scrapped. The plan opens the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts for drilling, Salazar observed.
Let us not forget that it also opens the entire Arctic coast to drilling.
Salazar said, "There are places that are appropriate for exploration and development and there are place that are not."
Surely the Arctic Ocean is a place where oil and gas development are not appropriate. Exxon managed to recover only 3 to 11 percent of the 11 to 38 million gallons of oil that spilled in Prince William Sound. The Arctic Ocean is an even less forgiving environment with its four months of darkness, sea ice, bitter temperatures, and storms. There is no proven technology to clean up or recover spilled oil in broken ice. None. Dispersants don't work in cold water with Prudhoe Bay crude.
What is at stake is a culture that has survived for over ten thousand years in one of the harshest environments on the planet. The culture has survived because the people could live off the land and sea. Take away the food and the people will vanish from the land.
Why should the Inupiat way of life be sacrificed for our oil dependency? The Arctic should be off limits to oil and gas development.
Spill survivor and author Riki Ott shares insights on disaster trauma and recovery nationwide and in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). Ott is a former "fisherma'am" and now a full-time community activist, committed to making human values count over corporate profits.