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Alaska: Big Oil and the Inupiat-Americans

We’ve been fighting all our lives against these big powers, to protect our way of life to the best we know how, because our way of life on land and sea is very important to us,” said Caroline Aqugaq during a discussion of “Project Chariot. We are a group of people who really enjoy living here at Point Hope.” Saying this, her deep feeling brought tears to her eyes. “We come together in unity and when we do that, we have a strong voice.”

The Government says they talk to us government to government but all that’s just a show,” Lily Tuzroyluke said sadly. “They have their plan and they just go ahead. Whenever we try to ask direct questions, the public relations guy evades them, saying, ‘What I’m hearing is…’ They just turn our questions back at us, until finally we’re yelling, ‘Just answer the question!’”

That’s right,” Mayor Kingik said. “And if we keep on questioning, they just bump us along to another agency.”

Call that ‘conflict avoidance’”! Rex Tuzroyluke exclaimed.

In 1971, Point Hope joined two villages of Gwich’in Indians in refusing to endorse the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), holding out for their traditional territories. That same year, the Big Oil-sponsored bureaucracy called the North Slope Borough (NSB) was created to represent the native villages, and rightly or wrongly the Point Hope people feel that they have been subject to NSB discrimination ever since.

They admit Point Hope is ‘economically distressed,’” said Caroline Aqugaq, “yet the Borough cuts us off from most of the funding we are entitled to, claiming we are “oil-subsidized” like most of the other villages. Well, we’re not! It’s just because we wouldn’t sign up with ANCSA and helped fight for the Refuge!”

Some of us don’t have education but we know how to listen,” Caroline continued. “I can still hear our elders. Somehow they knew how to protect our way. That’s why I believe in my heart that we can fight these giant companies.” Again, her deep feeling brought tears to her eyes. “We come together in unity and when we do that, we have a strong voice. ”

Our own state representatives are scared to come here and face us because we speak out so strong,” Susie Kivvaq agreed with evident satisfaction.

We are the users of this land, generation to generation,” Caroline Aqugaq said. “We stand together no matter what. If we are happy one day, we are all happy, and if we are sad, we are all sad.”

I’m happy today that the sun came out,” Franklin Quaavik announced suddenly to no one in particular. “I’m happy today that our younger people are using our Inupiaq language. I’m happy today because tomorrow we are going to Cape Thompson to collect eggs and eat ‘em. I know our ancestors are happy today because we are living our own lives and eating our own food.” He paused a few moments during which nobody else spoke. “I want to see this subsistence hunting go on all my life,” he said. “I still go out hunting for caribou but every year they are farther and farther away.”

I’m a gatherer: I gather berries,” said Aggie Aniqsuaq. “Last year there were no salmon-berries. I and my family had to go to Kotzebue to gather berries. Maybe that is from that seismic testing, too.”

Caroline Aquqaq talked about Nuiqsut, a whaling village in the shadow of the huge drilling complex at Prudhoe Bay, blaming its people’s serious stress (poor health, toxicity, drugs, alcohol, cancer, crime, divorce) on a system of deception by the oil companies, which promise prosperity but deliver only destruction of the culture. “When you hear them cry from their hearts like that…”—she chokes with grief.

Caroline Aqugaq’s son lives in Barrow and works with a company committed to offshore drilling. “I wouldn’t do it. Our responsibility is to protect this land the best we know how. He’s a man, he has to feed his family, so I can’t say anything, but it breaks my heart.”

Like most coastal Inupiat communities, Point Hope, about one hundred miles southwest of Point Lay, is faced with the melting of the permafrost under the tundra and the erosion of the coasts; because of Arctic warming, the sea ice is forming too late in the year to suppress the waves that batter the shores in the fierce autumn storms. Shishmaref and Kivalina villages in the Point Hope region have been fatally undercut by storm erosion and must soon be abandoned; their inhabitants are likely to become the first “climate refugees” from global warming in the United States, and others may soon follow. Kaktovik, Robert Thompson reports, has to move its airstrip; Point Hope and Point Lay have already selected higher locations farther inland. The Eskimo people surely sense that the ground of their ancient culture is eroding on every side and even from beneath them.


On the flight the next day from Point Hope to Point Lay, we saw no sign of the small, snow-white beluga whales, which are readily spotted from the air. Point Lay, like Point Hope, looks almost lost behind the large metal warehouse sheds brought in by the military in the mid-Fifties, when a radar installation was built nearby, but its short gravel streets buzz with four-wheelers. Just as Point Hope had been calm and quiet because its annual quota of three bowhead had been taken, Point Lay was agitated in its worry that the beluga had moved past unseen during the stormy weather. Some of the Inupiat hunters were predicting that the coal-mine explosions near Omalik would scare the whales further offshore, but next morning word flew around the village that two boats on their way north to join the whale hunt had passed thousands of beluga headed up the coast.

That afternoon, from the grassy bluff above the landing, I watched the whale crews come and go. Point Lay is protected by its position on the long Kasegaluk lagoon that runs over a hundred miles north and south; a barrier reef of long narrow islands parted by ocean passes separates the lagoon from the ocean. The whale hunt will take place in the lagoon after the migrating whales are driven to enter it from the open sea. (See accompanying map.)

Though it was fair weather, almost warm out of the wind, the hunters wore their winter parkas in preparation for a long cold night in small open boats, knowing the sea wind off the ice would chill the bones. One man was carrying two rifles, another a red five-gallon can of gas. A four-wheeler showed up dragging a large cargo on a dogsled with wood runners that scraped loudly on the gravel. The sled dogs, of course, are mostly gone and the sledges replaced by snowmobiles, but in the yards of the small houses, one still sees the two parked side by side, awaiting winter in the heavy grasses.

Marie and Bill Tracey have kindly invited us to join them in their boat for the whale hunt. An energetic, amiable white man who serves Point Lay as fire chief, Bill Tracey will go as the unofficial medic in case one should be needed. At 7:30 that evening, Subhankar Banerjee and I climb into the stern of their outboard skiff and with other small boats we travel south inside the long lagoon off the snow-patched mainland coast, navigating broad shallow sandbanks in a fitful squall. Perhaps twenty miles south, the boats turn through Kasegaluk Pass toward the open sea and go ashore on a broad beach of dark brown sand at the ocean entrance. Over the walkie-talkies the lead boats send word that they have located the pod and are herding it northward; the rest of the boats then put to sea and go to meet them.

On our long slow return on the open ocean, the sea is moderate, though it keeps this light skiff rolling; a following wind holds the exhaust stink captive in the cockpit. At sea, the wind has a cold bite, yet I feel snug, peering out through the wolf trim on my parka hood, on the lookout for pelagic birds. Marie turns to ask us how we’re doing and I say just fine and she gives me that great smile of hers and a raised thumb.

Perhaps twenty-five miles south of Point Lay, the three scout boats come into sight, herding the whale pod at an estimated 6.2 knots. The other boats, fourteen in all, turn and head north again perhaps a half-mile offshore, forming a loose single-file line; the motor noise deters the whales from trying to escape between them to the open sea. Originally strung out over a distance of three miles, the beluga have slowly gathered into one large pod of an estimated four hundred animals. (Unlike the bowhead, the beluga has never been an endangered species: some three hundred of the estimated 40,000 animals in Alaskan waters are killed annually by subsistence hunters.)

The midnight sun remains well clear of the horizon, and in this light the misting spouts are visible as the animals move alongshore. In the dreamlike sunshine, the beluga gleam like ivory against the dark brown sand of the reef islands. Occasionally two or three try to escape between boats to the open sea, but the graceful white shapes are easily seen as they surface to breathe and there is time to close the gap and bang oars on the boat hulls and turn them back. The first real crisis comes off the mouth of the Kasegaluk Pass where the big males in the lead threaten to veer inshore and pass into the lagoon; the beluga could be easily killed in the lagoon shallows, but at an average size of thirteen feet and three thousand pounds, they are much too large and heavy to be loaded into skiffs scarcely longer than themselves. And so the boats rush to cut off the pass entrance and the small whales careen across shallow water with a terrific splashing and resume their northward course off the ocean shore.

Whenever two boats cross or pass, no matter how often this happens, everybody waves and smiles, hailing the others and calling out greetings on their hand-set radios in the exhilaration of the hunt but also of community. At midnight and the start of the new day come shouts of “Happy Birthday!” and one of the hunters stands up laughing in his boat and raises his clasped hands over his head.

Nearing Five-Mile Pass—five miles south of Point Lay—the boats turn the pod inshore. The beluga are shunted through the pass into the lagoon with a great clamor of oars and rifle butts and tools on the boat hulls. Whales and boats rush through the narrows in the rough maelstrom of the tide; right under our bows, white backs part the dark pewter of the surface with a soft puff and disappear. Some break between the oncoming pursuers toward the open sea and these escape. In the queer light of the night sun, the bright waves leap and fly. The scene is primordially beautiful, utterly wild. But with the exhilaration of the chase—caught up in it, we onlookers bang the hull, too—comes not regret but quiet sadness that in the next hour some of these graceful animals will die.

Inside the lagoon, all seventeen boats travel at high speed, skillfully veering and criss-crossing while averting near collisions as they round up the milling whales and push what’s left of the pod north toward Point Lay. At this point five of the faster boats move back out through the pass, continue north on the ocean side; they enter the next pass, nearly opposite the village, and form a line across its lagoon entrance to discourage any oncoming beluga from attempting to escape. It is now about 4:30 in the morning.

The whales approach, the boats slowing behind them, as our five boats slip forward to close the circle. In near silence, so as not to panic them, the animals are herded into shallow water under the village bluff as the harpooners move up into the bows. (There will be no harpooning from our boat since, as a nonnative, Bill Tracey is strictly prohibited from direct participation in subsistence hunting.) At a signal, the boats ride up on the tired whales as they surface to breathe, and the harpoon—attached to a harpoon line and red float—is thrust downward right behind the blowhole. Only after the whale is well secured do the hunters approach close again and use rifles at point-blank range to finish them off. The killing is efficient and done with quickly. Most of the pod has already returned to the open sea or scattered north and south in the lagoon; but more than a dozen have been taken.

The dead whales lying on the shallow bottom are readily located by their floats. Secured by a hitch at the base of the tail fluke, they are towed across to Kali Island, where they are beached side by side. Everyone gathers and moves down the line, hauling each whale higher on the sand. Like the hunt, the hauling out is festive community activity, with hooting and banter: “Leave that last one for the women! They’re much stronger!” Finally all form a circle, grip hands, and give thanks to the Creator and to the whales for the great blessing of this food and a successful hunt in which nobody was hurt. It is 8:30 in the morning. After thirteen hours in their small boats, the exhausted hunters recross the lagoon and go home to sleep.

In the afternoon, from the village bluff, the whales on the island glow as white as a row of immense mozzarella cheeses; the families recross the lagoon to butcher the beluga and share out the maktak—the white hide with its attached layer of blubber. Never sold, to be frozen and eaten in the months to come, this vital food will be divided equally among everyone in the community, whether or not that person participated in the hunt or was even present in the village, and some will be set aside for relatives and friends as far away as Kotzebue and Barrow. This harvest, though successful, will not last the year.

Cooking fires, camp stoves, water boiling. “My mouth is watering for beluga meat,” said a reclining man who had made no discernible effort to help out. The rascally-looking gap-toothed whale captain from Kotzebue, whom I congratulated on a small-boat ocean voyage of 175 miles to join the hunt, grinned slyly, saying, “There’s no limit to how far an Eskimo will travel when he smells meat.”

Like the village council at Point Hope, the people at Point Lay believed that oil and gas exploration using powerful airgun blasts would be renewed this summer in the Chukchi Sea before the lawsuits of the whaling villages could be brought to court. Shell Oil had already announced its plan to “shoot seismic” in the Chukchi in July, then proceed north as the ice withdrew to drill its four wells in the Beaufort Sea, returning to the Chukchi ahead of the forming ice to record more seismic data.10 But on July 19, a few weeks after our visit to Point Lay, the federal court in Anchorage ordered Shell to suspend its Beaufort operations pending oral arguments before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which were scheduled for August 14. Since the company’s drilling license was valid through October, a ruling in Shell Oil’s favor might have permitted it to drill right at the peak of the bowhead’s westward migration through the Beaufort in September, but on August 15, the appellate court upheld the earlier injunction, finding that the whaling villagers had “raised serious questions and demonstrated that the balance of hardships tips sharply in their favor.”

The Inupiat were delighted by the Beaufort drilling reprieve although aware that it would be no more than a delaying action. Without public outcry for strong federal intervention and support for this small minority, the forces arrayed against the survival of their culture are too blind and too powerful to be deterred. When Shell Oil’s appeal for reconsideration of the August court decision was denied, the company had to shut down its Beaufort operation for this season, but that doesn’t mean it has given up. On the contrary, the company has declared a long-term commitment to offshore fossil fuel development and foresees “a bright future for Shell in Alaska.”

—October 25, 2007

  1. 10

    North Slope Groups Appeal Decision on Shell’s Beaufort Plan,” Petroleum News, April 19, 2007, available at www.petroleumnews.com/newsbulletin/13395855.html.

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