Inupiat Eskimos, Gwich'in Indians Disagree About Oil
KAKTOVIK, ALASKA — THE search for new oil reserves in Alaska involves competing interests among native Americans: subsistence hunting and a traditional way of life that has been tied to the land for thousands of years vs. a source of income that can make living in a harsh environment more comfortable and secure - at least in a modern sense.The Gwich'in Athabascan Indian people, who number about 7,000 in 15 villages in northeast Alaska and northwest Canada, have taken the lead in opposing oil and gas exploration along the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They have sued the US Interior Department, charging that their rights to hunt caribou (which have spiritual as well as nutritional importance for the Gwich'in) were not adequately addressed in environmental impact studies. The Gwich'in also say their rights under several international human rights covenants are threatened. "If there's any damage to the herd or to their migratory routes, then it will change our way of life here," says Sarah James, a Gwich'in Steering Committee Board member who lives in Arctic Village, a community of about 150 people located in the Porcupine caribou wintering area. "But it's not the caribou alone," she says. "There are broader issues: Arctic haze and global warming, the hole in the ozone layer over the North Pole, the migratory birds and ducks, and a whole ecosystem that still works." "We keep the land intact and we keep it clean, and in return it takes care of us," says Ms. James. "We live off the land and we want to hand that down generation to generation." Another point of view comes from Kaktovik, the only village within the refuge's coastal plain study area. This is an Inupiat Eskimo village of 200 people which owns 92,000 acres, including the site of the only test well in the area. The Eskimo-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corporation controls the mineral rights here. It is one of 13 native-owned corporations established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Like the Gwich'in, the Inupiat Eskimos here are subsistence hunters. Along with snowmobiles and sled dogs, stretched animal skins and bits of whale carcass can be seen around the village. But the corporation they control is very much in favor of oil development, believing that wildlife can be protected in the process. "I used to be opposed to oil development," says Warren Matumeak, an Inupiat Eskimo who has worked for the North Slope Borough government and the regional corporation. "But I've seen no impact on the caribou, so now I'm a convert." Mr. Matumeak also notes the economic and social benefits that came with the earlier oil development along the North Slope. "Now we have roads, airports, firefighting equipment, schools, senior centers, and a lot of other things we never thought we could enjoy," he says. "We also have better hunting equipment, like aluminum boats with outboard motors and rifles with scopes, so we've got the best of both cultures here." The issue for both Inupiat and Gwich'in is whether even more oil development would change their lives for the better.