Above Arctic oil reserves: old ways, satellite dishes

The House votes this week on drilling in the ANWR

Sitting up front in a flat-bottomed metal boat, his hunting rifle by his side, Danny Gemmill peers through binoculars. He's looking for caribou or moose, which make up most of the diet for people downriver in the Gwich'in tribal village where he lives.

Back at the outboard motor, Charlie Swaney, Danny's father-in-law, tugs his cap down against the light rain and chill. It's after 10 p.m. and still very light here more than 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. The two hunters head up the Chandalar River, where they'll spend the night under a canvas tent in the shadow of the Brooks Range, ignoring pterodactyl-sized mosquitoes for which Alaskan summers are infamous.

The atmosphere here is remote and still, about as far as one can imagine from the crowded hustle of the Lower 48 states. But this wilderness environment is the center of a national political firestorm that pits oil companies (and their friends in high office) against a pristine area environmentalists call "America's Serengeti."

In the middle are Indians like Mr. Swaney and Mr. Gemmill, whose society and culture based on subsistence hunting and fishing, stand squarely in the face of the dominant society's appetite for oil.

The US House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on opening up a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. In the face of general public opposition, pro-drilling forces face an uphill battle, particularly now that Democrats control the Senate.

But geologists estimate that there could be a significant amount of oil beneath the coastal plain of ANWR, up along the Beaufort Sea and just east of the Prudhoe Bay facilities that have been sending oil south through the Trans Alaska Pipeline since 1977. And even if lawmakers defer drilling for now, the issue is unlikely to go away.

The Bush administration sees ANWR's oil as an important part of its boost-supply approach to energy policy. And it's eager to send in the drillers, even if (as critics assert) there is only enough economically recoverable oil there to fuel the United States for six months and it would take 10 years to start pumping it into American fuel tanks.

Oil-company officials say advanced drilling and recovery methods mean it could be done in a way that would leave a relatively minor "footprint" on the fragile tundra.

"We're confident that we could explore and develop in a way that's compatible with healthy wildlife populations and with minimum impact to the environment," says Ronald Chappel, a spokesman in Anchorage for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

While oil recovery methods have improved in recent years, a series of recent spills along Alaska's north slope raises questions about the potential environmental impact of building new facilities.

Any drilling in ANWR would be done along the refuge's coastal plain. Proponents say only a very small portion of a vast refuge would be touched by pipelines, drilling equipment, housing for workers, landing strip, and other facilities.

But this is also the area that a federal study has found to be "the most biologically productive part of the Arctic Refuge for wildlife - the center of wildlife activity." Polar bears, musk oxen, tundra swans, and hundreds of other species are concentrated there.

Most controversial is the 129,000-member porcupine caribou herd, named for the river it crosses on its annual 400-mile migration. ANWR's coastal plain is the calving ground for the caribou, an area where - for a brief period in early summer - the herd and its newborns can feed on a rich diet, be relatively safe from predators, and escape the torment of mosquitoes.

And that's where the Gwich'in people of northeast Alaska and northwest Canada come into the picture.

Mixing tradition and modernity

For thousands of years, these northernmost Indians in North America have relied on the caribou herd, not only for food, tools, hides, and other practical aspects of daily life, but also as a profound part of their cultural and spiritual identity. The Gwich'in creation story tells of a time before humans when there were only animals on earth. When the Creator formed humans from the animals, according to this version of creation, the Gwich'in came from the caribou.

"Our whole way of life is based on the herd and on the land," explains Faith Gemmill, Danny's older sister, who works for the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Fairbanks, the organization formed to oppose oil drilling in ANWR. They call the coastal plain "Vadzaii googii vi dehk'it gwanlii," or "the sacred place where life begins." Many here fear that the caribou will go the way of the Great Plains buffalo - and for essentially the same reason.

Today, there are some 7,000 Gwich'in (part of the Athabascan language group) in 15 villages in Alaska and Canada.

In many ways, Arctic Village, a community of 150 people just across the Chandalar River from the refuge, seems like a throwback to small-town American life a hundred years ago - at least the way we like to think of it. Families are close-knit. Neighbors look after each other's kids. Resources, especially caribou meat and fish, are freely shared. A pick-up softball game at 11 p.m. involves boys and girls ranging from preschoolers to teenagers.

It's primitive living, by typical American standards. Most homes are built of logs. There's no running water or indoor toilets.

But people have electricity (powered by diesel generators out by the gravel landing strip), very slow Internet access on a couple of computers at the tribal office, and some have satellite TV service. Lots of people play fiddles and guitars which were introduced by French trappers centuries ago, and everybody is Episcopalian (the result of English missionaries' work).

Incongruities abound. When he's not hunting or cooking caribou, elder and former Village Chief Gideon James is playing his electric guitar along with Van Morrison and Eric Clapton tapes. Trimble Gilbert, the Gwich'in Episcopal priest here, is a tribal elder who hunts, fishes, makes his own snowshoes, and plays fiddle well enough to perform around the state. For $20 you can buy a CD of him playing country music with his sons.

Mr. Gilbert has no problem weaving Gwich'in creation stories and tribal values with the Old and New Testaments. "All these things fit into the gospel," he says, adding, "this whole country is holy ground to me."

It's an idea supported by church officials. "The Gwich'in are brilliant theologians," Alaska's Episcopal Bishop Mark MacDonald opines in an Anglican publication. "Gwich'in traditional culture is much closer to Christianity and Jesus than the dominating culture - Christian or not."

Elders are revered here, but Village Chief Evon Peter is just 25 years old, has a degree in political science, and wears Nikes. He's also been all over the country (and to other parts of the world) speaking out for indigenous people, and is considering law school, but pines for the taste of caribou and local blueberries.

Culture strained

Holding on to Gwich'in culture is an uphill battle. Many people leave the village, at least for a while, to attend college, serve in the military, or work in cities or the oilfields. As recently as the 1970s, many were forced to go to Oregon or Oklahoma to attend native American boarding schools. And it's acknowledged that despite the rustic and remote life here, the 21st century is near-fully here - even the reliance on petroleum products to fuel the ubiquitous snow machines and all-terrain vehicles that have replaced dog sleds.

There's concern, too, about drugs and alcohol. "Marijuana is a big problem in the village," concedes one lifelong resident. At the same time, many here worry that the younger generation is not learning tribal and village ways, including the language.

Charlie Swaney, one of the village's most accomplished hunters, worries that "a lot of knowledge has gone away in the past 10 years as people pass on." He has begun taking groups of teenagers and younger children far out into the refuge for a week or two at a time, teaching them how to hunt, fish, and live in the wilderness.

As he cooks a sizzling skillet full of sourdough pancakes with fresh-picked blueberries, he says, "I can't think of a better thing to do than be out in the woods getting caribou and moose, showing your kids how to cut up the meat, how to dry the skin."

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