BY the banks of the icy Chandalar River, beneath the tundra-covered slopes of the Brooks Range dusted with winter's first snow, North America's northernmost Indians prepare for their own oil war. The Gwich'in Athabascan Indians live in a world apart from the Persian Gulf and from mainstream Western civilization. A gravel airstrip and frozen river are the only transportation links between Arctic Village, home to 120, and the outside.
But the Gwinch'in say the Middle East crisis - with its talk of expanding oil drilling in the United States - threatens their survival. A national campaign to open America's second-largest wildlife refuge to oil drilling, which was stopped last year in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, is gaining momentum.
The Gwich'in claim that oil rigs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) will doom the caribou herd that feeds them and their culture.
Leaders among the Gwich'in, a tribe numbering 7,000 in Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories, and united by a common language and heritage of hunting caribou, met in late August in this tiny village 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle and on the southern rim of the refuge. ``Caribou is our Life,'' said the T-shirts, buttons, and hats worn by the 350 Gwich'in who attended.
Development will jeopardize more than just meat for their tables, they say.
``You have to reach out to the whole world to let people know what's going on in this earth. Many times we say that this is the last of the wilderness,'' said Arctic Village's Sarah James, head of the Gwich'in Steering Committee. The group is trying to pursuade Congress to permanently protect the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain from development.
Jonothan Solomon, a former chief of the village of Fort Yukon, promised to use his rifle if necessary. ``When it comes to a showdown on the coastal zone of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Gwich'in people are going to stand alone,'' Mr. Solomon said, his voice rising as he gripped a polished-wood talking stick. ``It's about time that the Gwich'in nation stands up and says, `This is ours, once and for all.' ''
Politicians and oil industry leaders say the Gwich'in dependence on caribou is outweighed by America's need for oil and Alaska's need for revenues in the face of dwindling reserves at North Slope oil fields.
Opposing oil development in the refuge is political suicide, admits Tony Knowles, the Democratic candidate in November's gubernatorial election. Mr. Knowles, whose campaign is backed by environmentalists, uses television spots showing him working at an oil rig to fight charges that he is ``soft on ANWR.''
Development supporters say the caribou concerns are overblown. Pointing to the fourfold increase in the caribou population since the pipeline's construction, US Sen. Ted Stevens (R) brushes aside concerns about the Porcupine caribou herd.
He says more Canadians than Alaskans hunt the caribou. ``That herd does not sustain our people. It is the Canadians that are taking that herd,'' he said at an earlier press conference. ``Except for a few people around the Fort Yukon area, we do not have a lot of people in Alaska who depend on that herd.''
That position disturbs officials in the Yukon and Northwest Territories who have opposed ANWR oil development. Across the refuge border, Canadian officials have established a park permanently off-limits to oil development.
And it incenses the Gwich'in, who say the Central Arctic herd is sickly despite its apparently robust numbers. ``I don't think any native in his right mind would eat any of that junk. It's contaminated,'' says Lincoln Tritt, a former Arctic Village chief and organizer in 1988 of the first Gwich'in gathering in 150 years.
Some 150 miles to the north of Arctic Village, near the Inupiat Eskimo village of Kaktovik that faces the biting Arctic Ocean wind, a patch of scarred tundra is all that remains of the only oil well drilled within the ANWR boundaries.
The well was drilled in 1985 by British Petroleum and Chevron on land owned by the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation. For now, those two companies are closely guarding the exploration results. Kaktovik villagers, owners of the corporation, are eager for congressional permission to reap the rewards.
The benefits of oil are apparent in Kaktovik, where oil money fuels public services like running water and the local school. Kaktovik's leaders say they need the money.
Another group, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, has an interest in ANWR oil development. Thanks to a 1983 land swap conducted by the Interior Department, the corporation holds subsurface rights to 92,160 refuge acres slated for oil development should Congress grant approval. The subsurface rights, added to the corporation's minerals-rights holdings, were traded for native inholdings in the gates of the Arctic National Park with the nominal purpose of consolidating park property. The trade was largely unopposed by environmentalists at that time.
Skeptics now say the land trade was designed by the Reagan administration to strengthen the lobby favoring oil development in the refuge. ``James Watt was a lot smarter than the environmentalists,'' says Matt Berman, an economist at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.
The Gwich'in, who call themselves ``the last Indians of the Last Frontier,'' have no such mineral rights.
Residents of Arctic Village and nearby Venetie even sat out of the sweeping 1971 settlement act, which traded traditional native lands - some needed for the trans-Alaska pipeline - for money and profitmaking corporations. Gwich'in leaders still refer to the settlement as a ``sell-out.'' They say the same of current cooperation with the oil industry.
At this summer's gathering, the Gwich'in conversed in their traditional language, dressed in traditional caribou skins, and ate at traditional potlatches. But they admit they compromise their traditions when they travel on gasoline-powered vehicles and wear factory-made clothes like the trendy athletic shoes favored by the Gwich'in children.
``I don't know how to put it into words. But we're just in a dilemma,'' says Titus Peter, an Episcopalian minister from the Alaskan village of Birch Creek. ``According to my own experiences and observation, development never did us any good.'' One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.