Even before President Bush could lay out his energy blueprint today, environmentalists, petroleum executives, and politicians lined up for and against oil and gas development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. About the only people absent from the discussion have been the Eskimos eager to resolve ANWR’s fate. Their desire to open ANWR deserves the immediate attention of policymakers and journalists alike.
Within ANWR’s 19.6 million acres, Eskimos own 92,000 acres of now — private property that Washington granted them in the 1980s to settle aboriginal land claims. The Eskimos’ right to lease their North Slope territory for fossil-fuel production was conditioned on Congress opening the rest of ANWR. Despite initial expectations of timely approval, this issue has remained mired in controversy until today. Meanwhile, Eskimos wonder if they ever will benefit from their lands.
“We feel as if we are a colony and that the imperial powers are dictating to us,” Inupiat Eskimo Donald Olson, M.D. tells me by phone. The Democratic Alaska state senator is working with the Washington office of a non-profit called Arctic Power to present the native view on ANWR. “We’ve got a right here that is being infringed upon by the federal government,” Olson adds. “We are having shackles put around us and are being held as economic hostages by people from the lower 48 who never have been to Alaska or the North Slope.” Olson also believes oil companies “have had 30 years of environmentally sensitive dealings with us. We anticipate this will be the same way.”
Olson, who practices general medicine, notes that his constituents in Kaktovik (pop. 256) “do not have running water or a sewer system. That means they are relegated to Third World conditions where people have to melt ice to bathe and to drink. They use five-gallon containers for sanitation.” This absence of flush toilets causes sometimes — fatal cases of hepatitis A and contributes to high infant mortality rates.
Olson and other Eskimos attribute what progress they are making exclusively to job creation and income generated from oil operations at nearby Prudhoe Bay. Says Olson’s chief of staff, John Jemewouk: “The standard of living has increased dramatically in the last 30 years since the oil companies came to Alaska.” He explains that Eskimos have used petroleum royalties and tax revenues to manage caribou herds more effectively, raising their numbers six-fold.
Such benefits have earned ANWR development widespread support among the roughly 8,000 Eskimos who populate Alaska’s North Slope Borough, an 89,000 square mile, Minnesota-sized county. A January 2000 survey of 68 Kaktovik residents found that 78 percent favor opening ANWR while only 9 percent are opposed. (For details, visit kaktovik.com.) The Alaska Federation of Natives, representing some 80,000 Eskimos, adopted a resolution in 1995 calling for opening ANWR as a “critically important economic opportunity for Alaska Natives.”
According to NSB mayor George Ahmaogak Sr., “71 percent of our annual revenues are generated by property taxes on oil field equipment and installations.” These funds have given many Eskimos access to police and fire protection, landfills, and other basic services.
Those who want to keep ANWR closed may expect the Eskimos to find other work. Their options are highly limited. “We have the most to lose if ANWR is not open,” says the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation’s Tara Sweeney, a native of Barrow, America’s northernmost town. “We do not have an economy in our area at all other than the oil industry.” The Eskimos once trapped animals and sold their pelts, but that profession went the way of the fur coat. For Eskimos, it literally has become oil or nothing.
“Our land provides the critical connection with our ancient culture and traditions that is necessary for our spiritual well being,” says ASRC chairman Jacob Adams. “And, in the form of jobs and tax revenues from the petroleum industry it supports, our land provides the opportunity for economic security, self-determination, and freedom.
As eloquent as that message is, President Bush faces an uphill battle in trying to do right by Mr. Adams and his tribesmen. Environmentalists will continue portraying ANWR as an ecological Louvre whose treasures must be vigorously defended from Dick Cheney and his white, male pals in Big Oil. Greenpeace’s fantasies aside, the caribou and eider ducks at ANWR are not alone. U.S. citizens also live there whose voices should be heard. Introducing the American people to the Eskimos of ANWR at a Rose Garden ceremony would add their perspectives to the national debate about a place they call home.