Alaska: Big Oil and the Inupiat-Americans


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…

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