Listen to the Gwich'in

In Alaska's debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, few ask its closest neighbors

In Alaska's debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, few ask its closest neighbors

By Julia O'Malley for Al Jazeera America

Photos by Nathaniel Wilder for Al Jazeera America

Edited by Katherine Lanpher, Mark Rykoff, Vaughn Wallace

The aurora borealis shimmers over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, March 1, 2015.

Published on Saturday, March 14, 2015

ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska — To understand the relationship between the indigenous Gwich’in who live in this village near the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the massive caribou herd that migrates through their land, you might start in February with a ride on the back of Charlie Swaney’s old snowmobile.

Motor past his sled-dog yard and head along a trail that leads out of the village through the powdery snow. After 15 minutes, you’ll reach a wide frozen lake, and he’ll slow down, so as not to scare the animals. There might have been 50 caribou along the distant shoreline on a recent afternoon. This time of year, they dig through the snow with their shovel-shaped hooves, looking for lichen.

Swaney silences the engine, gets off, swings the rifle off his back and examines the line of animal shapes through his scope. Pop! The herd scatters, leaving one female down. Soon Swaney is kneeling next to it with his knife. Head comes off first. Then the skin, beginning with a gentle slit down the white belly. Gwich’in have been hunting caribou in this area for thousands of years.

“You got to respect the animal, because that’s how you eat,” Swaney says as he pulls hide from muscle. You don’t take too many, he says. What you don’t eat, you feed to the dogs, he says.

“Respect is the main thing.”

Caribou scatter after Charlie Swaney fires, top. His shot claims a female caribou, which he field dresses, left, then loads onto his sled. (Click to enlarge images)

In 20 minutes, the caribou is butchered and on the sled and Swaney is kicking snow over its entrails. He’s so expert at the process, he can do it blind. Swaney, 54, is an orphan, taught to hunt by his grandparents, who raised him. His most important job in the village is one for which he isn’t paid. He’s a provider of meat. People in the village are of modest means, but they are rich in caribou. And that is what keeps the village alive, he says.

“The lifestyle out here is different,” Swaney says, raising his chin toward the caribou. “That’s why we depend on what’s out there.”

Since the late 1980s, the Gwich’in people, who live in 15 villages that stretch from Alaska into Canada, have been deeply involved in a fight to stop the push for oil development on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska is home to several massive herds of caribou. One of the largest, known as the Porcupine Herd, migrates through Gwich’in land as it heads to the Arctic coast to calve.

Although the Gwich’in have been championed by environmental groups, they say they are not environmentalists but are instead human rights advocates. The health of the caribou is their central concern because village economies depend on it, says Sarah James, an Arctic Village elder who is often tapped to speak to the media.

“We always took care of the caribou, this is nothing new,” James says. “The caribou always took care of us.”

Oil drilling will impact the herd’s behavior, she says. And there is always a risk of something going wrong.

“We have seen oil spills, big spills, or even small spills,” she says. “There is no way of cleaning up the coastal plain, which is tundra. It is too risky.”

An aerial view of the wilderness near Arctic Village, Alaska, where the Porcupine caribou herd roams. (Click to enlarge images)

Drilling has not been permitted in the refuge, despite heavy lobbying over many years. In January, the Obama administration proposed designating just over 12 million additional acres of the refuge as wilderness, a change that would create further barriers to oil development. The designation change requires an act of Congress, which is unlikely. Nevertheless, environmental groups cheered, and Alaska politicians from Juneau to Washington reacted angrily, calling a number of press conferences. Alaska’s state government is funded primarily by oil revenue. The state is currently facing a budget crisis linked to the low price of oil.

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan called the announcement an act of war. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it was a “gut punch,” and later threatened to crimp the Department of the Interior’s budget in response. Rep. Don Young’s office said it was like spitting in the faces of Alaskans. In Juneau, legislators called a press conference and made floor speeches excoriating the federal government.

Swaney, top left and right, is accompanied by his dog, Daazhraii, when he hunts. He is considered by others in the village as one of the community’s best hunters. Gwich'in elder Sarah James, 71, bottom, is on a lifelong quest to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from development. (Click to enlarge images)

In Arctic Village, 230 miles north of Fairbanks, just across the East Fork of the Chandalar River from the refuge, people watched stories about ANWR on news delivered to their living rooms by satellite. They saw on the Internet that most every national outlet covered Obama’s announcement. Stories quoted politicians, environmental groups and oil company spokespeople, but few mentioned their point of view. A few Gwich’in leaders wrote editorials published in Alaska papers, but that was all the world heard from them.

“It was as if we did not exist,” James says. “But we have been here for thousands of years.”

Villagers are very happy about a wilderness designation, James says.

“I can’t stop smiling, that’s how good the news is to me, she says.

They hope the president will go further, circumventing Congress and using his power to designate the land as a national monument. Among all the parties with a stake in whether or not drilling happens in ANWR, they feel they have the most to lose, she says.

“We support 100 percent keeping it closed,” says Ernie Peter, an Arctic Village tribal council member and former chief. “It is for our younger generation.”

Obama plan to preserve coastal plain

Obama's proposal will add "wilderness" designation to the entire Alaska refuge, making it more difficult for companies to drill for oil and gas. The USGS estimates there is between 4 and 11 billion barrels of recoverable gas in the coastal plain where caribou go to calve.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan, Chapter 4. Map by Alex Newman/Al Jazeera America.

Should the caribou be harmed and their numbers reduced, people wouldn’t have the food they depend on and would likely have to move, James says. Village life sustains a fragile culture. There are only 8000 Gwich’in total in Alaska and Canada, James said. In Alaska, there are now fewer than 300 people fluent in Gwich’in.

Edward Sam, another village elder, compared the threat to the caribou to the way killing buffalo destroyed Native American communities in the Lower 48.

“They kill all the buffalo; that’s the only way they won,” he says. “That’s the way I read my history.”

At the moment, the Porcupine Herd is very healthy. There are more than 190,000 animals in the herd, more than there has ever been since scientists started to study it in the 1980s, according to Jason Caikoski, assistant area biologist for northeast Alaska with the state Department of Fish and Game.

The Porcupine caribou herd, top, now numbers over 190,000 head. Caribou meat hangs to dry on a log rack in Charlie Swaney’s living room, left. Posters and photographs on the wall inside a village home, right. (Click to enlarge images)

For two decades, they calved in a part of the refuge at the center of the drilling dispute, a stretch of coastal land where scientists determined billions of barrels of oil may lie below ground. Recently, however, the majority of them have moved east into Canada to calve, Caikoski says.

“Why they have shifted calving, we don’t know. Whether or not they will return (to the traditional calving grounds), we don’t know,” he says.

One of the larger questions in the debate is whether drilling operations, if they were to intersect with calving caribou in ANWR, would have a negative effect. The Central Arctic Herd that calves near northern Prudhoe Bay oil-drilling operations has only increased in number, Caikoski says. This fact is often cited by drilling proponents.

On the other hand, he says, studies have shown that caribou in avoid disturbances, which could include equipment related to oil drilling.

“Whether that has a population effect, that’s the big question,” he says, adding that scientists don’t have enough data to predict what will happen.

Gwich’in elders tell stories about periods of starvation, when caribou numbers plummeted for reasons unknown. Even in those times, they say, hunters never disturbed calving animals. Even if other caribou coexist with drilling apparatus elsewhere, their herd is sensitive, they say.

“Sure there’s a lot now, but we know from experience, we always have to be careful because that can crash,” says Kay Wallis, a board member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the organization that represents the Gwich’in.

Caribou ribs and bones await division by knife and hacksaw in Swaney’s cabin. His wife, Marion, and sister, Martha, work to break down the meat, left. One of Swaney’s dogs sits outside the cabin, right. (Click to enlarge images)

When Swaney returns from hunting, he finds his wife, Marion, and her sister, Martha, at a cardboard-covered table with knives and a hacksaw, dividing up an animal he’d shot the day before. They parcel it into old bread bags to be frozen. The rest of the carcass is spread out on the floor. CNN blares on the television. A cat, one of two in the village, winds itself around the table legs.

Swaney built the cabin himself. In the kitchen, the food shelves hold pasta, dried mashed potatoes, rice, Folgers, Crisco. Because propane has become so expensive, their family, like most people in the village, shuns using a stove and instead cooks with a hot plate and a microwave. Electricity costs them $100 a month. Marion has a job at the school, working in the cafeteria.

Many Gwich’in live what is known in Alaska as a “subsistence-based” life. They have a modest cash economy in the villages, but many are dependent on caribou and other animals for food.

Average household income in the village is $27,000, and the cost of living is high. The clinic, school and tribe provide some work. Lots of people work several small jobs. Children make up about a third of the population.

Groceries at the local store are three times what they cost in Fairbanks. A bag of Doritos might be $10, a can of Folgers, $16. Gas for snow machines — which is how Alaskans refer to snowmobiles — costs $10 a gallon, and it takes $50 to fill a tank. There is only one working truck in Arctic Village.

This is also a corner of America where there is still no indoor plumbing. Villagers haul water. The call of nature is answered with a 5-gallon plastic “honey bucket” with a toilet seat on top. The village of 150 has one working public shower, which costs users $5 each.

Locals stay busy with the chores of everyday life. Aside from hunting and fishing, everyone heats with wood, which must be hauled from the hillside by snow machine and chopped. Sometimes people might not have cash for gas or even electricity, but they always have food, Swaney says.

“You’re never stingy with it,” Swaney says. “You got someone needs meat, you give it to them; it’ll come back to you.”

Slideshow: Life in Arctic Village

  • The village is one of the most remote towns in North America. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The "Midnight Sun Native Store" is the only store in town. Prices are three times higher than those in Fairbanks. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Gerald James sells gasoline to a resident. Gas currently costs $10 a gallon in Arctic Village. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The Arctic Village tribal council office. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Harvey Willoya starts his friend's snow machine before a gas run to the local gasoline seller. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Charlie Swaney cuts firewood. He is one of about 10 villagers who cut and sell wood for the rest of the 150 residents in Arctic Village. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Inside the Mission Church, an Episcopal church built in an old log style in 1917. (Click to enlarge images)
  • A snowmobile, known in Alaska as a snow machine, runs down main street in Arctic Village. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Arctic Village sits at the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the southern slopes of the Brooks Range. All supplies come in by plane. (Click to enlarge images)

Arctic Village and the neighboring village of Venetie are not like most Alaska Native communities. Alaska does not have a reservation system like the Lower 48 states. Most Alaska Natives are shareholders in regional corporations, which manage land and invest money, paying dividends. When the corporations were formed, Arctic Village and Venetie chose not to participate, winning instead the title to nearly 2 million acres of land. To come into the village, outsiders need permission from the tribal council. To explore the land outside the village, they must be accompanied by a Gwich’in guide.

Other segments of the Alaska Native community support drilling in ANWR, especially in the North Slope Borough, which has benefited from development in the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. Many Native corporations are invested in oil.

The Gwich’in in Alaska looked into drilling on their land early in the early 1980s, but elders soon felt the exploration was too big of a disturbance, James says. In 1988, elders from all the Gwich’in villages came together to discuss whether they would support oil development in ANWR’s coastal plain and decided against it. There were too many unknowns when it came to the animals, they decided.

Elders then designated people to advocate for that position. James was among those chosen. Her assignment, she was told, would last until her death. She is now 71 years old. A long white ponytail hangs down her back. She is one of just a few people who remember the village when everyone spoke Gwich’in except the Episcopal missionaries.

“My term was for life, because this is our life,” she says. “That’s what the elders tell us.”

Justin Gemmill, 33, left, is a musician who splits his time between Fairbanks and Arctic Village. Night falls on Charlie Swaney’s cabin, right. A snow machine track leads out of Arctic Village to a lake system where caribou from the Porcupine Herd gather. (Click to enlarge images)

Sarah James’ brother Gideon, 76, a former tribal chief, lives in a family cabin, with walls decorated with Christmas wrapping paper, caribou antler carvings and family photographs. He’s a news junkie who has tracked every development since the president’s announcement.

When a visitor asks him his opinion, he rises from his couch and opens a notebook where he writes down things he hears people say on the news that he wants to refute.

“I can hear what our senators, our politicians, are saying but there is no way for me to go confront them,” he says.

Contacted for this story, Sen. Sullivan declined to comment. Young, who is from the Gwich’in community of Fort Yukon, declined as well. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office sent a statement from a staffer, saying the senator had introduced legislation that would require oil companies “meet the highest level of environmental protection and mitigation available.” The healthy herd at Prudhoe Bay is proof of that, the statement says

“Alaska has a proven track record of prudent development and environmentally responsible oil and gas production…” the statement says.

Gideon James says he remembers when oil was first discovered in Prudhoe Bay. Things didn’t turn out the way politicians said, he says.

“There was this big push, excitement,” he remembers. “There was a promise of better living conditions, better education, better health service. Where are they?”

Oil companies made a killing, he says, but the state didn’t take a big enough share. Now Alaska is facing a budget crisis.

“It’s a shame to be that broke, with so many resources the state has,” he says.

Politicians don’t take into account how fragile life is in the village, he explains. They don’t respect the traditional routes of the animals, the caribou and migratory birds who pass through Gwich’in land on the way north, he says. James wishes Alaska’s politicians would visit to get a sense of the Gwich’in life.

Down the road, in the tribal hall, Peter, the former chief, says the same thing. The president also has a standing invitation, he says.

“I heard he’s coming to Alaska,” he says. “So maybe he’ll make it up this way.”

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