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Alaska: Big Oil and the Inupiat-Americans

1.

On August 2 of this year, asserting a symbolic claim to almost half of the Arctic Basin, a Russian submarine with two parliamentarians on board planted a corrosion-resistant titanium flag more than two miles down directly under the North Pole. In its international implications, the flag-planting anticipated a second epochal event when, on August 21, it was officially announced that the Northwest Passage, emerging at last from millennia of ice, was navigable and open to commercial shipping, removing as many as five thousand miles from long world voyages by way of the Panama Canal. A week later, on August 28, came the latest reports of a scarily accelerating loss of Arctic sea ice attributed by most scientists to global warming, a loss that on September 5 would be confirmed as the greatest on record.

All of these circumstances, of course, bore directly on the imminent development of the Arctic sea floor as a lucrative new field for the industrial extraction of the fossil fuels whose carbon emissions were the principal component of the greenhouses gases that are the primary cause of Arctic warming in the first place. As in Iraq, what was driving all this activity, for better or worse, was the region’s mineral resources, and as in Iraq, the one clear beneficiary of this earth disaster was the international energy industry, a.k.a. Big Oil. Though present estimates may be inflated and not all of the deposits economically accessible, it is thought that these undersea deposits might suffice to fuel the world for a few years, after which this last clean wilderness will be fatally filthied and contaminated and lost forever to mankind.

The sudden media attention given to the melting of the ice and the plight of Arctic animals was obliging the backward Bush administration and even a few enlightened corporations to face the dire threat of global warming. In a phone conversation on September 18, the Inupiat Eskimo hunter Robert Thompson told me that a BBC film crew, National Geographic, and other organizations were descending on his small coastal village of Kaktovik on Barter Island, just off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge not far from the western end of the Northwest Passage, and no doubt this was also true in other localities around the Arctic rim. But for all the flurry, the interests and well-being of the indigenous people most affected had scarcely been mentioned, far less taken into account; the Inupiat (the “Real People”) were quite aware that the media would pay much more attention to the vanishing polar bear than to the native people of the Arctic coasts, who were at risk of being pushed right off the map.

Robert Thompson, an Inupiat-Athabaskan Indian who has become a well-informed environmental spokesman for native Alaskans, is also a member of a whaling crew and carver of whale baleen, the long translucent blades fringed with hair to filter plankton from the sea that are found in the vast mouths of whales such as the bowhead. Thompson described how the retreat of the ice had already affected the hunting. Like most coastal Inupiat villages, Kaktovik had been allotted a quota of three bowhead whales in an annual noncommercial hunt, a traditional event authorized by the International Whaling Commission. Even five years ago, when I first met Thompson in the Arctic refuge, he was already worried by the growing threat of offshore oil activity, fearing that it might dislocate the whales’ migration paths: like the caribou of the Gwich’in Athabascans that calve and summer in the refuge, the whale is a sacred animal and cultural symbol of the hardy, industrious Inupiat, whose ancient subsistence culture has always depended upon a wild harvest.

In recent years in the early autumn when the bowheads pass in westward migration on their way to the Bering Strait, the Beaufort Sea remained largely free of ice, which was forming much later and much farther off the coast than at any time in memory, putting the small whale boats at serious risk in the rough open water exposed to winds. In the spring, the floating pack ice, thinner every winter, could no longer be trusted as a platform for seal-hunting, not only for man but for the ice-dependent polar bears, which rarely hunt on land.

When the energy industry’s twenty-seven-year campaign to drill the refuge coastal plain was forestalled by the Republican loss of Congress in 2006, the Inupiat and the Gwich’in who had most to lose were among those Americans most relieved that Big Oil’s unrelenting pursuit of fossil fuels into the heart of America’s most pristine and magnificent wildlife sanctuary had at least been slowed. But as it turns out, the industry was less interested in the refuge as a marginal oil and gas field than as a shore base for a vast drilling operation in the oil-bearing strata not far off the coast, with even more ominous implications for the native people.1

Faithfully supported by the Bush administration, corporations like Shell Oil were expediting plans to prospect and develop Alaska’s continental shelf, littering the Beaufort Sea with drilling ships and wells, supply ships and barges, airplane and helicopter racket, blasted-out harbors, ice-fortified steel piers, and hundreds of miles of pipe—not only an immense increase in contamination and disturbance but an incalculably risky project that threatened to overwhelm the adaptive capacity of the indigenous sea hunters and an entire precious ecosystem already seriously under stress from Arctic warming.2

Environmentalists are quite aware that despite society’s desperate need for clean energies, carbon fuels will drive the world economy for years to come, and political pressures for ocean drilling may be insurmountable. But the risks of ecological disaster from irreparable accidents such as oil spills in Arctic seas are truly enormous, which is why critics feel so strongly that the oil industry’s ambitions are premature at best and at worst reckless. In addition to severe operating and maintenance difficulties in fierce Arctic conditions—never satisfactorily tamed even on land—any offshore drilling operation would have to deal with freezing ocean storms and shifting ice and four bitter months of winter darkness.

When one considers the more than four thousand spills—over one a day—recorded by the oil industry in its land operations in the last decade, and keeping in mind that offshore hazards are far greater, the inevitable accidents seem certain to accumulate into an ongoing and permanent calamity. A black effluvia of crude petroleum and drilling mud and chemical pollutants would spread inshore, suffocating plankton and invertebrates and bottom-dwelling fish and poisoning great stretches of Arctic coast with a viscous excrescence. The same toxic mixture will blacken the drifting ice, fouling the pristine habitat of Arctic birds, the Pacific walrus, four species of seals, and the beleaguered polar bear, while contaminating the migratory corridors of the white beluga and endangered bowhead whales—all this defilement made much worse by the grim fact that no technology has ever been developed for cleaning up spilled oil in icy waters. Even in spills in temperate waters, such as the Exxon Valdez disaster, only an average of less than 15 percent is ever removed.

An immediate threat to Inupiat culture is the disruption of animal habitats and whale migrations caused by seismic testing, in which arrays of powerful airguns shoot sound waves through the sea floor in search of deep rock formations that might hold gas or oil. “The underwater noise produced by seismic airguns…is among the most intense sounds ever generated by humankind…. The potential harm is enormous,” according to Dr. Christopher W. Clark, a marine biologist and undersea acoustics specialist at Cornell.

Very short bursts of very high energy noise are exploded within the ocean and injected into the earth. Those explosions are repeated over and over again, twenty-four hours a day, for days on end…going off every 9–12 seconds. They represent the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment I can imagine short of naval warfare.3

Seismic testing has been shown to cause significant mortality in fish eggs and larvae, and while permanent harm to adult animals has not been researched, it can scarcely be doubted that physical and neurological damage will result. Yet seismic prospecting (minimally monitored for the bowhead whale, an officially recognized endangered species) is still permitted before leases for ocean drilling are issued, and the leases stipulate no protection of wild creatures against loss of habitat or other harm that might impair their chances of survival.

Even without disruptions such as seismic testing, the rapid withdrawal of the ice is truly ominous for Arctic wildlife, since the melting edges of the ice pack are where life proliferates in the twenty-four-hour light of spring and summer. The profusion of phytoplankton and sea algae attracts fish and birds and also the bowhead, which consumes plankton; the beluga feeds along the ice edge on the small Arctic cod. Of the four seal species, the bearded and ringed seals are entirely ice-dependent, and the preferred habitat of the Pacific walrus, too, is drifting ice, which carries it over the rich mollusk beds from which it feeds. Warming has already set in motion an ecological chain reaction as the ice-edge cod, which feed the ringed seals, which feed the polar bears, follow the retreating sea ice farther and farther from the coast.

For polar bears, too, the drifting ice pack is their primary habitat for breeding, denning, and hunting; the decline in the bear population in the Beaufort region, documented last year by the US Geological Survey, was largely attributed to thinning ice.4 “For polar bears, the end is near,” declared The Week last year [5/12/06]. Yet despite its status as a public icon, efforts to place the largest terrestrial predator on earth on the federal endangered species list have been fiercely resisted by Big Oil and its government allies, since endangered status would prohibit federal approval of any activity that might adversely affect its habitat or compromise its ability to maintain its numbers—in short, any oil prospecting or drilling activity anywhere in the bear’s Alaskan range, along the coast (as at Prudhoe Bay) or out to sea.

In April 2004, the Interior Department confirmed plans to greatly expand and accelerate its leasing program in the Chukchi Sea, from Point Hope to a region of the Arctic Ocean well north of Point Barrow, and as far west as Big Oil could expand its realm without drilling on the Chukotka Peninsula of Siberia. The Chukchi Sea, though distant from any existing port or pipeline system, is shallow continental shelf—the northern region of the submerged Bering land bridge between Asia and North America by means of which so many Old World mammals, Homo sapiens included, crossed to the New World. At 39.4 million acres, what the Interior Department called the Chukchi Sea Planning Area reaches farther north than any region that the Interior Department had previously offered to the oil industry for lease. When we also consider the vastly increased leasing area in the Beaufort Sea, we find there has been a fourfold increase in the total area available for lease in northern Alaskan waters during the last five years.

Last April (2006), at an “open water science” meeting held in Anchorage by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the whaling captains of Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Barrow, Wainwright, and Point Hope tried to reach some sort of accommodation with the oil industry on how it might operate offshore with minimum impact on whale habitat and migration. But the whalers were soon disillusioned by the patronizing attitudes of the oil companies and the federal agencies that do their bidding, especially the so-called “conflict-avoidance agreements” which suppressed their queries and objections. In May 2007 the tribal government passed a broad resolution “to strongly oppose the development of oil and gas in the 1002 area of the ANWR and in offshore waters of the Arctic Ocean, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea.”

On a mainland bluff overlooking a large lagoon on the Chukchi coast sits the stark, wind-scoured Inupiat village known as Point Lay. When the photographer Subhankar Banerjee and I visited Point Lay in early June 2006, we were told by an animated Inupiat leader named Marie Tracey that all the men were down at the lagoon getting boats ready for the annual beluga hunt, which might take place as early as the following week, or as soon as the pack ice moved offshore and freed the coastal waters for the whale migration. As we spoke, I was observing a small flock of snow geese passing overhead, and Marie Tracey said that because wild geese and other migratory birds are protected in the breeding season, the Inupiat had to make do with “white man grub” from the village store eked out with fish and the few caribou which trail down to the coast at this time of year. For the Inupiat, whose marvelous adaptability and perseverance has preserved their ancient way of life more or less intact in the few small communities found here and there along the 1,400 miles of north Alaska coast, the fundamental basis of their diet and the ancient source of their physical and spiritual well-being as well as ceremony, art, and myth are the large marine mammals—whales, seals, walruses, and polar bears. Of these, the most esteemed at Point Lay was the small white whale called the beluga.

Marie Tracey’s people were very worried that industrial explosions from both land and sea might deflect the whales from their coastal migration past Point Lay. On their way north, the beluga usually convene for a week or more off a cove called Omalik, some thirty-five miles to the south. “Those coal companies want to build a mine right inland from Omalik,” Marie Tracey told us, “and run a railroad down there to ship the coal out.” Her people’s more immediate concern, however, were the offshore explosions of the seismic prospecting scheduled by Shell Oil for later in the summer.

In the summer of 2006, as feared by the Inupiat, Shell Oil’s armada “shot seismic” in the Chukchi before following the sea ice north into the Beaufort Sea, where the ice lingered too late to permit the drilling of four exploratory wells on Shell’s early leases. Despite the company’s oft-voiced claims to environmental responsibility, drill sites for 2007 to 2009 are located off the Canning River, not far east of the huge industrial oilfield complex at Prudhoe Bay and only a dozen miles offshore of the Arctic refuge. Another planned drilling site farther east is just three miles off the Hulahula River near the small village of Kaktovik, and another off the beautiful Kongakut River. Both rivers descend from the magnificent high snow peaks of the Brooks Range and cross the great caribou and bird breeding sanctuary on the refuge coast plain.

In early 2007, the Shell Beaufort exploration drilling plan for those first four wells was submitted to the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Service (MMS). On February 15, the MMS released its brief environmental assessment of Shell’s offshore exploration; it concluded that Shell’s impact would not be significant, and approved its drilling plan even while conceding a lack of adequate research and scientific data. The agency’s perfunctory assessment fell short of the full Environmental Impact Statement required for such controversial projects.

The department’s US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service—responsible, respectively, for the protection of polar bears and whales—also acquiesced, approving Shell’s seismic exploration operations in the knowledge that they would profoundly disturb marine mammals.

The ever-compliant Interior Department nevertheless rewarded Shell with a license to carry out its program, which included plans to bring two drill ships, two large icebreakers, and a dozen support vessels to the Beaufort Sea later that summer. There they would drill up to four oil wells this year and a total of eighteen over the next three to five years. These operations would necessarily take place in whale migration pathways and offshore habitats of marine mammals—the areas most critical for the subsistence hunting of native Alaskan residents on the North Slope.5 To nobody’s surprise, Big Oil and its allies in the federal bureaucracies had effectively ignored the potential impact of their plan both on the ocean and the Alaska native communities.

In May 2007, in an effort to avert this potential environmental crisis, a number of Alaska native organizations and conservationists appealed and then filed suit against the MMS for its unwarranted endorsement of Shell’s own perfunctory environmental assessment.6 The organizations argued that MMS’s use of an inadequate environmental assessment to support its approval of Shell’s exploration plan violated the National Environmental Policy Act; they also charged that the MMS failed to analyze the consequences of a crude oil spill and seriously underestimated the impact of the exploration activities on bowhead whales, polar bears, and native subsistence resources and activities. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction holding up the exploration plan; the pending case will be heard in court in December 2007.

On June 24, 2007, the Frontier Airlines flight north from Kotzebue passed over brown barrens patched by snow and a forbidding coast half-hidden by icy fog; we could barely make out the bird cliffs at Cape Thompson, which after World War II had been chosen as the site of an artificial harbor to be blasted out by four atomic bombs; though billed as a port for fishing vessels, there was no commercial fishery on this coast and nor is there today, a half century later. An attempt to evade the Nuclear Test Ban’s prohibition of above-ground nuclear testing as well as one of the most feckless experiments ever conceived, “Project Chariot”—mercifully aborted after a two-year fight led by the Inupiat people of Point Hope, only 35 miles away—was the brainchild of Dr. Edward Teller, coon-masked prototype for Dr. Strangelove and fanatical proponent of peacetime nuclear power.7

Soon the great crescent bay of Point Hope appeared, even as its ten-mile point (Alaska’s farthest northwest cape, pointing at Asia) disappeared westward into the sea mist. The great sand cape is carved and recarved by the outwash of the Kuukpuk River and strong coastal currents, and as it erodes, Point Hope village retreats toward the base of the point; as an old man named Koonuknowruk would tell us, “Old Tingara” has moved east four times within his lifetime, and in this period, a whole third of the sand cape has been lost. An archeological dig in the 1940s in the Tingara that preceded the present ruins produced artifacts that were carbon-dated back to at least 2000 years ago, and it is thought that the original settlement may have been far older: in fact, Tingara or Point Hope, on a cold barren coast almost infinitely silent for thousands of years, is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement in North America.8

Banking over broad lagoons, the plane landed on a strip between the last mounds and shacks of Old Tingara and the present village, where the Point Hope elders, anxious to share their worries about contamination of the sea by seismic blasts and contamination of the land and air by Red Dog, a huge open-pit zinc mine some 85 miles away, had called a special meeting of the village council. A group of a dozen elders and officials spoke to us around a table in the Tribal Council building.

Franklin Quaavik gave the invocation (“O Lord, help us to understand what is happening to us, O Lord.”) Next, Mayor George Kingik reminded us that US Government threats to Inupiat existence dated all the way back to post–World War II legislation that had made all of north Alaska north of the Kuskokwim, Porcupine, and Yukon Rivers a military zone under the authority of the Defense Department. A few years later, the Point Hope people had to deal with Project Chariot, from its first inception in 1958 to 1962 when it was finally abandoned. Their great victory in that protest a half century ago against Project Chariot gives these elders hope that with more media attention and public education, their tribal litigation against offshore resource exploitation and seismic testing might yet succeed. “We had to become political people overnight!” one lady said.

Lily Tuzroyluke slipped me a quick list of the eleven local sites of military contamination, including the fuel spills, heavy metals, PCBs, lead paint, benzene, and asbestos at old military installations such as the Army camp and armory and weather station, in addition to the radioactive soil from a Nevada test buried in a government experiment at the Chariot site and the barrels of nuclear waste found in a cliff cave not far north of Cape Thompson. What was missing from this list, of course, was the presence everywhere in the Far North of accumulated toxic fall-out; for many years now, the traditional hunting cultures have been beset by unceasing chemical poisoning of their environment, their game animals, and themselves by PCBs, DDT, dieldrin, mercury, and many other lethal substances borne north from the industrial world by ocean currents and more particularly high altitude winds, descending in the cold air of winter to infiltrate the food chains and instill poisons into all of Arctic life, from the microplankton eaten by marine organisms that accumulate in the meat and livers of fish, whales, seals, and bear to the lowly lichens on which caribou subsist in the lean seasons. 9 By a sad irony of environmental injustice, the primary victims of this omnipresent and inescapable contamination are a native people who contributed nothing to industrial pollution, including the greenhouse gases and global warming now diminishing their world.

The seismic activity off this coast last year (July to November), Point Hope elders told us, had killed large numbers of fish and other marine life, which had washed ashore during and after the testing: meanwhile, the bowheads had passed far offshore and the walrus had failed to appear. “When we were out whaling, we were always told to be quiet because whales are real sensitive to noise,” said Rex Tuzroyluke, a silver-haired man with an elfin smile. “We were taught how to listen to the whales, using an oar stuck in the water. That’s how I heard Belugas. Well, last year we caught no whales or walrus and the caribou never come neither. The whales are changing their migration because of all that noise.”

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.

2.

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. 1

    See my “Inside the Endangered Arctic Refuge,” The New York Review, October 19, 2006.

  2. 2

    See Elise Wolf, “Oil and Water: The Arctic Seas Face Irreversible Damage,” Earth Island Journal, Summer 2007.

  3. 3

    See Christopher W. Clark, statement submitted to the Cape Breton hearings on seismic testing in March 2001, available at livingoceans.org/oilgas/oilandgasreports/clark%20submission.pdf.

  4. 4

    Dan Joling, “Fewer Beaufort Polar Bear Cubs Survive,” Anchorage Daily News, November 16, 2006.

  5. 5

    Personal correspondence, September 8, 2007, from P.A. Miller, Arctic Coordinator of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, a party to the suit, who for twenty years has studied the impacts of offshore oil drilling in Alaska.

  6. 6

    They were led by the group called Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), a native grassroots activist organization for all of Alaska’s native tribes. The group included a number of conservation organizations: the North Slope Borough, a regional government; the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a regional tribe. Crucial to this suit was a comprehensive thirty-two-page critical analysis prepared in late 2006 by the National Resources Defense Council and its allies that was drawn on for the plaintiffs’ brief.

  7. 7

    See Dan O’Neill, The Firecracker Boys (reissued by Basic Books, 2007.

  8. 8

    See Berit Foote, The Tigara Eskimos and Their Environment (North Slope Borough, 1992).

  9. 9

    See Marla Cone, Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic (Grove, 2005).

  10. 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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