Drilling Debate Hits Close to Home

On many matters, Alaska's Native Americans speak with one voice. But on the question of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, there's a deep divide between two native villages in remote corners of the far north.

One village is Kaktovik, home to some 250 Inupiat Eskimos who make their living primarily from the sea.

The other is Arctic Village, a small outpost located 290 miles north of Fairbanks and home to the Gwitch'in people who inhabit 15 villages in Northern Alaska and Canada.

The Gwitch'in were among the last Native Americans to come in contact with Europeans and their culture today remains largely intact since that first meeting. The 150 residents of Arctic Village rely heavily on caribou for all kinds of reasons – drying the meat in handmade smokehouses, using bones for tools, and skinning the fur for leggings and moccasins.

"We're connected to the caribou in a way that what happens to them, happens to us," said Faith Gimmel, a Gwitch'in Indian.

Biologists say the porcupine caribou herd, which calve on the coastal plain of the ANWR, has dwindled in the past few years, probably due to natural cycles. But the lower numbers have already made things difficult for the people of Arctic Village. 

Local residents say they fear for their future if drilling begins in the ANWR, which would displace the herd from their natural calving grounds.

"I think we're gonna be really in trouble. I don't think we're going to see caribou anymore," said Trimbel Gilbert, a Gwitch'in tribesman.

Biologists who dispute the impact of drilling on the herd say the caribou and other species are resilient and able to adapt.  They are in agreement with the Inupiat Eskimos located in Kaktovik, a tiny village located inside ANWR about 150 miles north of Arctic Village.

The Inupiat, who live primarily off of seals, walruses, and whales, but also caribou, say they don't fear drilling in their own backyard.  In fact, they argue that drilling in ANWR will improve the quality of life for the remote tribe because of the development that will accompany it.

"I want our village to survive," said Lon Sonsalla, Kaktovik mayor.  "I think the main thing is let us determine our destiny here, or let us at least be a part of it, and we'll take care of it.

"We're finally getting in the new millennium – running water and flush toilets for our community – so we've benefitted," said Fenton Rexford, an Inupiat eskimo.

Not everyone agrees.

"I'm concerned about the environment," said Robert Thompson, an Inupiat. "For the business I am pursuing now – wilderness guiding – it would be a very bad effect. I don't think people would be wanting to see the wilderness if there's an oil field there."

The tribes in the area, however, may also benefit from the oil industry's expansion. Residents rely on the taxing power of the North Slope borough, which encompasses the entire area north of the Brooks Range all the way from the Canadian border to the northernmost point of the United States, Point Barrow, more than 330 miles west.

The oil industry has all of its infrastructure taxed, but as the buildings and equipment get older, the revenues get smaller.

Many in the community believe drilling in the ANWR will be an economic boon.

"The way I look at it, it's for our students, it's for our kids. Like my dad said, 'God gave us this land, if he put oil in there, it is a gift from him.' Let's use it the right way," said Ida Angassan, an Inupiat Eskimo.

The locals have the ear of Alaska's congressional delegation – two senators and one congressman, all of whom support drilling.  But the decision is in the hands of the entire U.S. Congress, who for the fourth time in 15 years will decide whether the debate that has raged for a generation weighs more heavily toward America's coming energy needs or preservation of its wild lands.