I remember that one of the things that made the Inupiat people of the North Slope the angriest was when environmentalists suggested that ANWR was a vast trackless expanse of land that man had never touched. They used this as the reason why industry should not be allowed there now no matter how small a footprint it leaves behind.
This angered the Inupiat because the simple truth is that they have been part of the Arctic for as long as their cultural memory can reach and Western science can confirm. And during that time, they did not fly on winged feet over that land. They walked on it. They dog-sledded on it. They hunted, loved, created families and died on it.
This same can be said about the seas of the Arctic, which the Inupiat view as their gardens. They harvest from them in the same way a farmer harvests his field. Among other benefits, the mammals of the Arctic carry in their blubber the vitamins we get from vegetables; the vitamins that allowed the Inupiat to be healthy in a land where the sun never rose for three months and the land did not produce vegetables and fruits.
The presence of men and women has been felt in the Arctic since time immemorial. It is not a vast wasteland as some would suggest who are eager to sell its virtues as an oil rich bounty for America’s energy needs. And it is not some virgin waiting to be defiled by the rapaciousness of an uncaring oil industry. As always in real life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle where most of us actually live.
This past week Governor Murkowski, in an apparent outbreak of frustration over his inability to open the ANWR coastal plains to development, has announced he will offer offshore areas for leasing in the Arctic. Whether or not this is a viable business concept, and whether or not anyone will even be interested in these tracts, is not an issue I plan to discuss here. The issue I see as much more immediately important is the message this once again sends to the only people in the world who can honestly claim a love of the Arctic land and seas that goes beyond what bounty they provide and is inextricably bound up with who they are.
Anyone who has seen the changes on the North Slope since the development of Prudhoe Bay must admit that along with the negative impacts the money had on the culture, from which the culture is still struggling to emerge, the positive impacts are undeniable. There are sanitation and clean water systems in each village. There are health clinics, good roads, fire departments, local schools and safe housing all attributable to the money brought in by that development.
North Slope people are well aware of their good fortune and have worked hard to be good neighbors with the oil industry. But they have always rightfully insisted that they be integral to any development on the North Slope so that their heritage of good stewardship of their land and seas will pass untainted to the children’s children. They have never been willing to trade their culture for a paycheck. They have worked hard for 30 years to make sure that it has not had to be a trade but could be a mutually beneficial relationship.
When Governor Murkowski vents his frustration over opening ANWR’s coastal plains by announcing he will lease land in the Inupiat’s garden, the people of the North Slope rightfully recoil from what seems like a slap in their face. It is as though they are being punished for something over which they have no control.
I’m guessing the governor did not intend it in this way but that’s how it looks from out here. The sea is sacred to the Inupiat in a way that a thousand of my columns could not fully explain. The bowhead whale defines the Inupiat. The seal, walrus and polar bear are part of the cycle of life in any Inupiat village. The danger of off shore drilling to these resources is something almost beyond comprehension because it is the kind of damage that once done could destroy an entire culture.
The Inupiat people are proud to be Alaskans and proud that the bounty of their land has helped strengthen their state. After all, sharing is at the heart of this culture and sharing the wealth of their oil is just an extension of what they have always done with any of their bounty.
They deserve to be heard about their seas and we need to listen carefully to what they say. It’s the right thing to do.