BARROW, ALASKA — During this presidential campaign, the question of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has surfaced repeatedly. Vice President Gore wants to prevent future development in this spot above the Arctic Circle, while Texas Gov. George Bush wishes to open a small part of it to drilling.
Many people oppose drilling because they fear that human impact on the land, the wildlife, and the native Gwich'in Indians will forever change the Gwich'in culture. The Gwich'in live south of this area and subsist on a caribou herd that migrates from the Arctic coastal plain through the mountains into Gwich'in territory each year.
As a native leader who lives on the Arctic coast and also hunts caribou, I share their determination to protect the health of the herd. But I believe their fear for the future is unfounded.
Like the Gwich'in, my people - the Inupiat Eskimo - depend on wildlife for our dietary and cultural sustenance. Like the Gwich'in, we hunt and eat and share with our families a small portion of the animals that God has put on our land.
Our relationship to the land and its bounty makes us who we are. It has enabled us to survive in this harsh climate for thousands of years. Like the Gwich'in, we would not betray our responsibility for stewardship of the land.
But unlike the Gwich'in, my people have seen oil development in our region. Prudhoe Bay - North America's largest oil reserve - lies under our land.
When it was discovered in the late 1960s, we instinctively assumed that oil production would destroy our traditional way of life. But we have learned it is possible to open the land to drilling and protect our way of life, too.
When it became clear that we could not deny the national interest in Prudhoe Bay, we accepted a land-claims settlement that conveyed title to us for some of our lands in exchange for our consent to extract oil and ship it through a pipeline across our region.
In order to ensure our influence over development, we established a regional government whose boundaries encompass our traditional lands, including Prudhoe Bay. This gave us authority for planning, zoning, and issuing permits in the oil province. We have used this authority aggressively to prevent the endangerment of wildlife.
Nearly 30 years later, I can tell you how this experiment has worked: The oil companies have had to accept us at the decisionmaking table and incorporate our concerns in their development plans.
While neither they nor we are always satisfied, this balance of power has led to oil development that is respectful of our land and its wildlife. Caribou still roam the pipeline corridor in large numbers.
Native people in the 21st century are not well served by the attitude that indigenous cultures cannot survive unless their world remains untouched. That attitude only weakens native people in the face of change.
We must exercise leadership so that our needs and traditions are honored in the process of change. If we simply say "no" and fail to adapt, we will not survive.
I believe that the Gwich'in - together with experts from wildlife agencies, the oil industry, and our people - can craft a plan that will protect the animal migrations and deliver needed oil to communities in the south. Such a plan would improve the quality of life in Gwich'in villages, so that their children would want to stay and raise families there. It would also incorporate environmental controls to protect the land and the caribou.
All healthy cultures continually adapt to changes in their environment. Native people are not "noble savages," and neither we nor the non-native people who seek to save us from a changing world should cling to that Hollywood stereotype. The Gwich'in Indians and the Eskimo are survivors, however. If you don't believe me, come visit us in the middle of winter.
Our people have thrived despite the harshest climate on the planet. We can protect our traditional culture even as we respond to the demands of the larger world. The Eskimo have done it. We look forward to the partnership of the Gwich'in as we adapt and progress into the 21st century.
George N. Ahmaogak Sr. is mayor of North Slope Borough in Barrow, Alaska.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society