Human rights versus oil
By Julie A. Wortman
Evon Peter presides at dedication of new solar panels for the Arctic Village washeteria.
Evon Peter and Mark MacDonald
Eco-tourists use the landing field at Arctic Village as a staging area for expeditions into ANWR.
This past June 2125, as small bush planes ferried pristine-wilderness-seeking eco-tourists in and out of the dirt landing strip on the edge of this South Slope Alaskan settlement, about 250 Gwichin, along with an assortment of fellow indigenous-rights and environmental activists, were gathered in Arctic Villages (Vashraii Koo) community hall to celebrate Gwichin identity and achievement with dance and testimony.
Orchestrated by the Fairbanks-based Gwichin Steering Committee, "Gwichin Gathering 2001" was also aimed at spotlighting for outsiders the basis for Gwichin opposition to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling because, as Episcopal Bishop Mark MacDonald pointed out to the largely Episcopalian audience, "the lobby for drilling has been communicating untruthful things about this issue."
"Drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, no matter how carefully, will substantially disrupt the birthing grounds of the Porcupine River Caribou herd," Steve Ginnis, a Gwichin Koyukon Athabascan born and raised in Fort Yukon, Alaska, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last May. Ginnis is President of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 Interior Alaska Native tribes.
"Gwichin people on both sides of the [U.S./Canada] border share these animals as a material resource and as a vital cultural component," Ginnis pointed out to the Committee. "Along with our cousins in the Yukon Territory, we consider the birthing grounds a sacred place. It is unacceptable to consider placing industrial development in this area."
Gwichin Steering Committee member Sarah James reiterated this stance during one of the talk sessions this past June. "This is human rights versus oil," she stated flatly. "Thats all it is."
But few non-Natives want to accept this simple formulation of the conflict.
Only a couple of days before Gathering 2001, President George W. Bushs Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, had flown into Arctic Village for a four-hour consultation with Vashraii Koo Neetsaii tribal leaders. Norton, among whose official responsibilities is the protection of Native rights, was apparently unmoved by village elders concern that opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling would rob the tribes children of their heritage and traditional way of life. Norton, who reportedly stressed the heating needs of the far larger number of children in the Lower 48, scolded villagers that they should "broaden your world view," a remark frequently repeated with head shakes during the gathering as participants reported on the tribes participation in global solidarity campaigns and educational programs (a satellite dish at the village school makes internet access and telecommunications possible). The tribes First Chief, Evon Peter, 25, college-educated and widely traveled, personifies this villages orientation to the future.
Ironically, those favoring drilling in the Refuge also seek to discredit the Gwichin position by arguing just the opposite that the Gwichin world view is already so broad that Gwichin objections to drilling in the Refuge based on the threat to their traditional subsistence lifestyle are disingenuous. James and others from the tribal villages in this region admit that progressive environmental degradation over the past generation has made it more and more difficult to find sufficient game to keep villagers alive. And modern village life runs on electricity for lights (a generator at the landing field produces it at 51 cents per kilowatt), gasoline for the four-wheelers most everyone uses for transportation (brought in by barge or airplane at a cost of $4 a gallon) and heating oil for withstanding the Arctics long, frigid winters ($3 per gallon). Still, caribou and moose meat were prominent staples at Gathering 2001 meals and speaker after speaker stressed that outsiders are incapable of judging the boundaries of "traditional" and "non-traditional."
"Hunting and fishing rights are not just about food in your mouth, its a way of life," said Deborah Vo of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, an Athabascan with marketing and business management degrees to her credit. "These things define our language, our songs, the roles we learn. Education is important, but where you are from is also important."
In downplaying such arguments, pro-drilling advocates say the Gwichin are pawns of the uncompromisingly anti-development, presumably Anglo, conservation community which, they say, highlights the human rights angle only to further its own pro-wilderness agenda. Alaskas television and print media outlets are stuffed with oil company ads that counter conservationists claim that oil drilling is bad for the environment and downplaying the fact that in 1996 alone, for example, there were 427 substantial spills of either oil or other hazardous substances at Prudhoe Bay by showing apparently healthy, contented caribou dotting the Prudhoe Bay oil fields .
"Some people use this as a pretext for suggesting that caribou are not harmed by industrial development," Steve Ginnis testified at last Mays Senate hearing. "What you may not know is that caribou use the oil fields as a safe harbor from predators wolves and bears. These high-food-chain animals are less likely to exist within the Prudhoe Bay industrial zone."
The Tanana Chiefs Conference is worried that drilling in the Arctic Refuge will affect many other animals than the caribou polar bear, musk oxen, arctic fox and wolverine. The Chiefs also point out that little attention has been paid to the impact of the oil companies dependence on ice roads and ice pads on the fragile hydrology of the region.
Environmental concerns, in fact, are a high priority for the Gwichin and for other Native peoples, as Tom Goldtooth, Coordinator for the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) stressed during Gathering 2001. IEN has just approved a Native Energy Campaign to educate tribal leaders on renewable energy. During Gathering 2001 Evon Peter, in fact, presided over the dedication of a new solar-powered energy system (for the eight months of sunlight) for its "washeteria," which provides washing machines and showers for the 130 or so people who live in Arctic Village year round.
Andrea Carmen, of the International Treaty Council, emphasized that for Native peoples, the distinction between environmental and human rights is artificial a product of the so-called "developed" worlds compartmentalized mindset.
"We cannot just speak of the rights of humans," Carmen told Gathering 2001. "It is much better to speak of natural world responsibility. Indian people are responsible for the idea of sustainable development. Were fighting for the entire world here."
Another complexity of the Arctic Refuge conflict which non-Native people emphasize is the distinction between tribal governments and the "corporations" set up under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, a piece of federal legislation pushed by Alaskan legislators to make it easier for government to resolve Native claims to the states mineral and surface rights.
"The U.S. government pulled off an amazing feat of assimilation by creating a corporate structure that undermines tribal governments," said Heather Kendell Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. The Gwichin, which already had a recognized "reservation" of land (which only partially covered the area of their traditional homeland), opted to have the "Village Corporation" created under the 1971 legislation give the land officially recognized as theirs back to traditional tribal control. This meant the tribe opted out of the corporation structure imposed by ANCSA, so that if ANWRs coastal plain is opened to drilling, they will not be a beneficiary as part of that structure. This has seemed to pit the Gwichin, whose primary concern is the welfare of the birthing grounds of the Porcupine River Caribou, to which they have hunting rights, against peoples such as the Inupiat, who are part of the ANCSA corporation structure. The Inupiat, who do not object to opening the Refuge to drilling, are traditionally whale hunters who reportedly object to oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, a stance which Gwichin attending Gathering 2001 said they support.
Despite the apparent intricacies of the conflict, what remained clear as Gathering 2001 drew to a close is that the forces which favor opening the last remaining 5 percent of the Arctic coastal plain to industrial development are not intending to back down from this fight. Also clear is that Sarah James succinct characterization of the dispute, "human rights versus oil," inescapably remains the very simple core issue.
Julie A. Wortman is editor/publisher of The Witness.