A Native Alaskan Saw It Coming

THE oil oozing across Alaska's waters has me thinking about an evening 15 years ago, in a village on the Arctic Ocean. The pipeline project was under way, and the state was awash in oil money. Pipeline workers crowded the Anchorage airport, duffle bags bulging with stolen tools. In Fairbanks, workers were driving off with yellow pipeline jeeps. There was money for politicians, money for everyone. It was a potlatch, and nobody seemed to care.

In tiny Barrow, on the North Slope, the boom was thrusting a native culture headlong into the oil age. Barrow was a cluster of wooden shacks, some of which could be sharecropper huts in Alabama. Only prodigious amounts of natural gas, piped in from the Naval Petroleum Reserve offshore, kept them warm in the Arctic winter.

The pipes couldn't be buried in the frozen tundra. So a jerry-built system went from house to house, over roads and through backyards, a bit of Bauhaus plumbing that seemed a disaster waiting to happen.

The oil wealth was just beginning to appear. A new motel was under construction, and snowmobiles - not dog sleds - greeted those landing at the tiny airstrip. At Al's Eskimo Cafe, old natives sat grim-faced, eating caribou and reindeer stew, while the kids had Fritos and Coke.

I was trying the caribou (who could eat Prancer or Vixen?) when two women entered, wife and daughter of a visiting official from Fairbanks. Recently of Burbank, Calif., they were dressed as though for Rodeo Drive: fur coats, makeup, and heels.

They clacked regally to a table, and started cooing at the children. Out came the cameras. When the kids demurred, they cajoled them with nickels. The men watched with contempt that seemed the accumulation of decades. I wanted to crawl into the floor. It was the one time in my life that I felt totally ashamed of my race.

That evening, my friend and I were riding back to the naval research lab, where we were staying. Suddenly, our driver's shortwave radio began to crackle. Hunters had killed a whale and were towing it ashore. Our driver asked if we would like to go back to his house and wait. It would be a couple hours at least, he said.

Somewhere, in a cardboard box, is a notebook in which I recorded that evening. I recall that his house was sturdier than the others. He was an enterprising man, with a crew cut and leathery face that somehow showed both sadness and amusement. He brought out a tin of margarine, saltines, and tea. While the Arctic wind blew outside, he talked to us about growing up in the days before the oil.

He called it simply the ``old way.'' It was based upon dogs. Dogs were wealth; on the tundra, they were life. Boys learned to handle them as soon as they could walk. Young men entered manhood by going out into the wilderness with nothing but a team of dogs.

People in Barrow had known about the oil years before the oil companies, he said. They kept quiet because they knew it meant trouble. Sure enough, boys were growing up now with snowmobiles - oil - instead of dogs. The old way would be forgotten, seemingly overnight. The man was heartsick.

The next morning, we arrived at the beach to find the whale reduced to a carcass. Everyone in Barrow had gotten a portion - hunters first, the rest according to custom. Directing the proceedings, in a fur parka, was an elderly woman.

Just days before, I had visited legal-service lawyers in Anchorage. They were preparing materials to help these and other natives understand the concept of a ``corporation.'' To settle the native claims to the pipeline route, the federal government had turned parts of the state into regional corporations, with title to the minerals. All natives would be shareholders. Starting in 1991, they can sell their shares on the open market, even to oil companies.

America's notion of ``progress,'' I thought. Turn a culture based on sharing into a macho one of acquisition and exclusion. The elderly woman into Ivan Boesky. As the oil from the Valdez has bemired Alaska's coast, I've been thinking about something our driver said to us that night.

People would be sorry that the old way had been forgotten. ``The time will come again,'' he said. ``The time will come again.''

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