Fifteen thousand years ago, deep in what is now the wilderness along the Alaskan and Yukon borders, someone - age, sex, language, and beliefs unknown - sat and made a tool. It was fashioned to scrape hides, to flesh the inner surface of a skin before tanning. Its recent discovery in an archaeological dig is the oldest indication of humans in North America, a tool created in a land still embraced by the last Ice Age.
What's remarkable is not just the antiquity and ingenuity of this tool, but its material: The scraper was chipped from the femur of a caribou.
Sometime in the centuries separating the creation of this tool and its 20th-century discovery, the descendants of its maker diversified across northeast Alaska and the Yukon, becoming the people we now know as Gwich'in. Today more than 7,000 Gwich'in make this wilderness their home, and although Gwich'in life has changed, the basic source remains the same. The caribou, as seen in a 15,000-year-old piece of bone, and as seen today, are the basis for survival in the uncertain north.
I have been living in the Gwich'in village of Old Crow over a year now since graduating from high school, a year in which talk of the caribou has been omnipresent - from the frenzy of the fall hunt to the springtime rumors of returning herds. The caribou that sustain the Gwich'in in Old Crow, and across the north, belong to the Porcupine River caribou herd, a mass of nearly 135,000 animals that migrate from their wintering grounds in the Eagle Plains area of the central Yukon to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. Old Crow lies in the middle of this migration route, in a landscape that seems so vast as to be impervious to the outside world.
However, the hundreds of square miles that make up the traditional Gwich'in lands, and the migratory paths of the caribou, are more fragile than their ancient grandeur would suggest.
Beneath the coastal plain lies both a blessing and a curse - an untapped deposit of oil and natural gas. These are reserves that, in this petroleum-hungry age, are increasingly in demand. But drilling for this oil would disturb, even destroy, the calving grounds of the caribou.
With threat to the wilderness comes threat to the people who make it home. Development in ANWR stands to eradicate more than the last migratory herd in North America; it also threatens a way of life that transcends 15,000 years of human history.
Destroying the traditional means by which the Gwich'in people survive is cultural genocide - caused not by direct violence, but by the slow disappearance of their primary resource and a gradual assimilation into mainstream society. And while it is unlikely that anyone will starve, it is equally unlikely that the 16 Gwich'in villages across the north could remain Gwich'in, in any cultural sense, without the caribou.
All of this has been said before. The debate over drilling in ANWR is tossed back and forth across the presidential campaign trail. Drilling is denounced by Vice President Al Gore, who stands to protect the refuge, and supported by Gov. George W. Bush, who believes America should be more self-sufficient in its energy needs. Gwich'in representatives tour the country, lobbying for permanent protection of ANWR. The oil companies make their case to every car owner in America.
After my time spent in Gwich'in country, I wish to present a different perspective. Americans should protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine River caribou herd, not because we are environmentally conscious or culturally sympathetic or simply altruistic. We should protect ANWR, in part, for ourselves.
The 20th century was an age of cultural homogenization; of diversity lost to the overwhelming forces of technological expansion. In the 21st century we are left to contemplate these losses and, if we are aware, to preserve what ecological and human diversity remains. This involves the sacrifice of short-term personal benefits for the long term advantages of a culturally diverse world.
In the changing and uncertain age we now inhabit, a diversity of cultures may be as important to human survival as the diversity of species. I am no believer in a coming apocalypse, but I do understand that our species is living beyond its means, that society, as most Americans know it, is not a sustainable proposition.
The wilderness up north here is not a resource to be explored and exploited, or merely a balm for a hectic lifestyle. It is, in fact, a sustainable and sound way of life. We should never let such a unique existence disappear, even if we will never live this way ourselves, or wish to. Great knowledge can be found here, among the Gwich'in, and great wisdom. Should we let this slip away, for a few months' worth of cheap oil?
In the end, it comes down to the fate of the caribou. Preserve the land that sustains the caribou, and the caribou will, in turn, give the Gwich'in a chance to continue their culture. And we will all hold on to a dimension of our own humanity.
But to do so we must relinquish the misconception that, despite the distances between us, we are powerless to influence change. This distance in turn relieves us of no responsibility. Just as the Gwich'in will never meet their ancestors, most Americans will never see the remote village of Old Crow, a place where life grows just as it did 15,000 years ago. It comes with the return of the caribou. For now, and, I hope, for all time.
Bathsheba Demuth is a volunteer assistant at the local community college in Old Crow and raises a sled-dog team.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society