Caribou Culture Clashes With Oil Age

One hundred miles north of Arctic Circle, Alaska's Gwich'in Indians battle big oil interests over developing a wildlife refuge

At school, children wear T-shirts that proclaim ''Caribou Is Our Life.'' When they venture into the surrounding hills, they are reminded to take a survival kit - matches and a rabbit snare. Tales of hunting and fishing are told from the church pulpit.

Fish and wildlife represent more than food and clothing to the Gwich'in Athabascan Indians, whose tribal name means caribou people. They are part of their identity.

So it's not surprising that members of this enclave 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle view the possibility of drilling in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as a virtual death threat.

They have become vocal antagonists in the drama about opening the arctic expanse to oil companies - one of the most bitter clashes in the federal budget debate.

The Gwich'in say drilling will wipe out their culture by polluting their pristine land and decimating the herds of porcupine caribou that are key to their livelihood.

Their opposition to ANWR, however, has put the approximately 5,000 Gwich'in here squarely at odds with most Alaskan politicians and business leaders - as well as other tribes - who say the development is needed to bolster the state's oil-dependent economy.

It has also put them in conflict with Republicans four time zones away in Washington, D.C., where the GOP budget bill anticipates a $1.3 billion infusion of funds from oil-lease sales.

Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently visited Arctic Village and argued that oil development would help the community. He and other drilling proponents cite industry claims that ANWR holds the potential for an oil bonanza.

But Kias Peter, the village chief, sees death, not wealth, knocking on the village's door. ''I told him, 'If you let the oil companies do this, you'll kill us.' You know that's for sure,'' he says of the local culture.

Other residents resent what they see as use of the federal budget to unleash oil development. ''It seems all they are interested in is money,'' says Charlie Swaney.

The community here is one of just a handful of Gwich'in towns in Alaska and Canada. Its loose collection of log cabins is nestled into the south side of the Brooks Range. Tucked among razor-edged peaks and looping rivers, it sits 120 miles south of the coastline that new oil wells would pierce.

Far from Alaska's limited road system, this tidy bush village shows virtually no sign of Alaska's oil wealth. It does sport large satellite dishes that bring residents their main contact with the outside world. The school also has a computer room open for residents who want to go on-line.

But tiny Arctic Village is reachable only by plane or snowmobile. The houses lack running water and indoor plumbing. Two small stores sell a limited number of staples. Most people here, rather than working for a paycheck, spend their days in the traditional pursuits of gathering meat and other wild foods, chopping wood, and sewing clothing from caribou skins.

The Gwich'in in Arctic Village say they don't oppose all oil development. Like all Alaskans, they rely on oil dollars to fund their schools and other services, and they welcome the oil-fund dividend check paid out each fall to every state resident.

Residents acknowledge that ANWR drilling would bring them oil-field jobs and money for luxuries like running water and flush toilets. But they prefer to maintain their traditional culture of hunting and gathering. And they have found an ally in the White House. President Clinton has promised to veto any budget that allows ANWR oil development, citing concern for the region's caribou, grizzly bears, migrating birds, and other wildlife.

Some other native communities in Alaska, on the other hand, have offered the Gwich'in little support. The Inupiat Eskimos, who live on the north side of Brooks Range, have embraced and prospered from oil development and stand to reap substantial benefits from ANWR drilling.

The Alaska Federation of Natives overwhelmingly endorsed the Inupiat position at its annual convention in Anchorage last month. ''With the federal government cutting back on helping the native peoples, we really need this to help my people be able to stand on their own and try to be self-sufficient,'' Janice Meadows, an Inupiat who attended the conference.

But this small Arctic town, where caribou stew is ubiquitous and children sport mittens sewn from caribou and beaver skins, sees its future in preservation, not petrodollars.

As the issue heats up, the Gwich'in are keeping a hunter's eye trained on the debate thousands of miles to the east. At the village council building, bulletin boards hold newspaper accounts of the Washington budget battles.

Even children have joined in, saying they worry that the rivers will be tainted by spilled oil and the caribou will be chased away. ''We don't want them to kill our caribou, because it'll be no fun to the boys because they love to hunt more than anything else,'' said fourth-grader Sheena Gilbert.

At a recent Sunday service in the Episcopal church, Trimble Gilbert - the minister, a former village chief and Sheena's grandfather - led hymns in the Gwich'in language, often spoken here.

His sermon included references to snowshoes, fish camps, and hunters who tended a campfire over generations.

''They know their culture. They believe they can do something, with God's help,'' he told worshippers.

At least one village elder believes prayer may fend off the oil rigs.

''People are hearing our story all over the world,'' said Edward Sam. ''There must be a good God.''

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