Above Arctic oil reserves: old ways, satellite dishes
The House votes this week on drilling in the ANWR
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"Our whole way of life is based on the herd and on the land," explains Faith Gemmill, Danny's older sister, who works for the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Fairbanks, the organization formed to oppose oil drilling in ANWR. They call the coastal plain "Vadzaii googii vi dehk'it gwanlii," or "the sacred place where life begins." Many here fear that the caribou will go the way of the Great Plains buffalo - and for essentially the same reason.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, there are some 7,000 Gwich'in (part of the Athabascan language group) in 15 villages in Alaska and Canada.
In many ways, Arctic Village, a community of 150 people just across the Chandalar River from the refuge, seems like a throwback to small-town American life a hundred years ago - at least the way we like to think of it. Families are close-knit. Neighbors look after each other's kids. Resources, especially caribou meat and fish, are freely shared. A pick-up softball game at 11 p.m. involves boys and girls ranging from preschoolers to teenagers.
It's primitive living, by typical American standards. Most homes are built of logs. There's no running water or indoor toilets.
But people have electricity (powered by diesel generators out by the gravel landing strip), very slow Internet access on a couple of computers at the tribal office, and some have satellite TV service. Lots of people play fiddles and guitars which were introduced by French trappers centuries ago, and everybody is Episcopalian (the result of English missionaries' work).
Incongruities abound. When he's not hunting or cooking caribou, elder and former Village Chief Gideon James is playing his electric guitar along with Van Morrison and Eric Clapton tapes. Trimble Gilbert, the Gwich'in Episcopal priest here, is a tribal elder who hunts, fishes, makes his own snowshoes, and plays fiddle well enough to perform around the state. For $20 you can buy a CD of him playing country music with his sons.
Mr. Gilbert has no problem weaving Gwich'in creation stories and tribal values with the Old and New Testaments. "All these things fit into the gospel," he says, adding, "this whole country is holy ground to me."
It's an idea supported by church officials. "The Gwich'in are brilliant theologians," Alaska's Episcopal Bishop Mark MacDonald opines in an Anglican publication. "Gwich'in traditional culture is much closer to Christianity and Jesus than the dominating culture - Christian or not."
Elders are revered here, but Village Chief Evon Peter is just 25 years old, has a degree in political science, and wears Nikes. He's also been all over the country (and to other parts of the world) speaking out for indigenous people, and is considering law school, but pines for the taste of caribou and local blueberries.
Holding on to Gwich'in culture is an uphill battle. Many people leave the village, at least for a while, to attend college, serve in the military, or work in cities or the oilfields. As recently as the 1970s, many were forced to go to Oregon or Oklahoma to attend native American boarding schools. And it's acknowledged that despite the rustic and remote life here, the 21st century is near-fully here - even the reliance on petroleum products to fuel the ubiquitous snow machines and all-terrain vehicles that have replaced dog sleds.
There's concern, too, about drugs and alcohol. "Marijuana is a big problem in the village," concedes one lifelong resident. At the same time, many here worry that the younger generation is not learning tribal and village ways, including the language.
Charlie Swaney, one of the village's most accomplished hunters, worries that "a lot of knowledge has gone away in the past 10 years as people pass on." He has begun taking groups of teenagers and younger children far out into the refuge for a week or two at a time, teaching them how to hunt, fish, and live in the wilderness.
As he cooks a sizzling skillet full of sourdough pancakes with fresh-picked blueberries, he says, "I can't think of a better thing to do than be out in the woods getting caribou and moose, showing your kids how to cut up the meat, how to dry the skin."