Columbus Day marks not only the "discovery" of this continent but the beginning of the conflict between native and European America. While history books record this battle as an era of the past, for the Gwich'in Indians of northeast Alaska, the war is still going on.
For 10 years now the Gwich'in have been fighting a proposal in Congress to conduct exploratory drilling in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the calving ground for the cherished porcupine caribou herd. Hunting caribou has been central to the Gwich'in culture for 10,000 years. To damage the herd would devastate the Gwich'in culture.
Feasibility studies for drilling in the refuge, an area larger than West Virginia, started in the mid-1980s. Congress proposed to open it to drilling in 1995, but President Clinton vetoed it. The proposal awaits a final resolution, maybe with the next president. For that time the Gwich'in anxiously await.
This is a classic conflict of short-term economic prospects versus long-term cultural survival. Corporations, in their pursuit of profits, bump up against native cultures - or spotted owls or marbled murrelets - and most often, the corporations win.
Is this kind of "progress" inevitable? Do we have to watch as our lawmakers open this area to exploratory drilling when the largest price will be paid by this native community? If the US government sides - as it historically has - with corporate interests, then the Gwich'in community will become another statistic.
It's not a black-and-white issue. Oil could bring jobs to the economically depressed Arctic Village, which is 90 percent Gwich'in and has an unemployment rate of 55 percent.
It could be argued that because the Gwich'in already depend to some degree on a wage economy, drilling would simply make their lives easier. Their diet, based on caribou, is supplemented in the winter with store-bought goods. And because all goods must be flown in, prices in the Village are exorbitant. An 18-ounce jar of strawberry jam costs more than $5, and a 20-ounce box of Cheerios costs nearly $8.
A study I conducted in the community on behalf of the National Endowment for the Humanities this past summer confirms that traditional subsistence, and its central reliance on the caribou, continues, despite the use of modern technology. I found that over half of all household food comes from the land. Indeed, nearly 90 percent of the households had at least one member go caribou hunting last year. The animal is consumed virtually in its entirety. And yet, despite the promise of wage-labor jobs that oil drilling in ANWR could bring to the region, residents there are skeptical.
"They told us [once before] that oil drilling would make us rich, when they opened Prudhoe Bay," says resident Louie John. "But it didn't help us. Everything just skyrocketed [in price] after they built the oil pipeline."
Indeed, if anything, Gwich'in dependence on the caribou has intensified, rather than declined, in recent years. "Without money, how can we buy what's in the store?" asks resident Joel Tritt. "Out there," he says, pointing to the nearby mountains, "the food is free. All we have to do is go get it."
Thus, the issue of job creation is at best, a red herring. As is often the case in indigenous communities, the employment "carrot" dangled before the Gwich'in is connected to a very big "stick." Give up your traditional lands, resources, and livelihoods, goes the argument, and you can make lots of money in industry.
And yet, the hole in the argument is a simple one: The Gwich'in lack the skills and education necessary to make the shift to most wage-labor positions. Many in the community simply have no desire to do such work - particularly if it comes at a cost of their very cultural survival.
The issue of the caribou is bigger than economics, for Gwich'in culture centers on the animal as well. The meat, for example, is rich in fat and protein, essential for a people that braves 50 degrees below zero temperatures. No potlatch or other celebration is complete without a variety of caribou dishes available. Similarly, the hides, antlers, and other animal parts are used to make a variety of traditional items and clothing.
The next president has an opportunity to look beyond the immediate corporate, economic, and political gain of drilling in ANWR to the long-term benefit of cultural diversity. While past injustices to American Indians can't be undone, the threat to this culture can be stopped. If the Gwich'in culture disappears under our watch, we won't have Columbus to blame.
*Steven C. Dinero is an assistant professor of area studies at Philadelphia University, in Philadelphia.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society