Arctic Voices

Arctic Cultures at Risk

There are two groups of Native Americans that have, for more than 10,000 years, depended on the wildlife of the Arctic for their food and subsistence. In both cases, the majority of their populations are very concerned about energy development in the Arctic because of the major threats such development would pose to the wildlife and ecosystem on which they depend for survival.

 

The Caribou People - Gwich'in Indians The Whale Hunters - Iñupiat Eskimos

Gwichin children

For more than 10,000 years, the Gwich'in people of Alaska and Northern Canada have survived in one of the harshest environments on the planet.   Their survival has always depended on harvesting an ample amount of caribou during the two seasons when the Porcupine Caribou herd migrates past their communities. Traditionally, Gwich'in lived a nomadic lifestyle, traveling between semi-permanent base camps while hunting, fishing, and trapping.  

Gwichin Hunter

Today, the Gwich'in continue to hunt and fish for the vast majority of their protein.   Though they have adopted the snowmobile, rifle, and outboard motor, the Gwich'in still rely heavily on wildlife and wild fruits to subsist. They have decided to avoid a heavy reliance on imported food and infrastructuure. As a result, the Gwichin have successfully preserved their culture and live life today not so differently from how their ancestors lived for more than 10,000 years.

Gwichin Children Dancers

The Gwichin are a multi-national people.   Their traditional lands range in both Canada and Alaska [click here to see a map of Gwich'in lands].   Though the majority of the Gwich'in reside in Canada, significant populations are located in Alaska.   With a total population of about 7000, the Gwich'in are a close-knit group that have maintained their traditional tribal government while also working closely with and participating in the much newer state, provincial and federal governments of Canada and the U.S.

Boyin Wheeler

Today, the Gwich'in see the greatest threat to their existence as stemming from the proposed oil development of the coastal plain of the United States' Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.   Large oil companies and their allies within the U.S. government are proposing that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be opened to oil development. That portion of the refuge, also known as "the 1002 lands," has been described as the "Biological heart" of the refuge.   Many scientific studies have found that the survival of caribou calves birthed outside the "1002 lands" is far lower than that of calves born on the coastal plain.   Gwich'in leaders, as well as many scientists and wildlife managers in Canada and the U.S., worry that with the current population of the Porcupine caribou herd in decline, the introduction of a major industrial center within the herd's calving grounds could impair their reproduction significantly enough to threaten the survival of the herd as a whole.

Old Venetie

For more information on Gwich'in people, their culture, and the threats to their lifestyle from industrial oil development, visit the following links:

Whale Butchering

The Eskimos or Inuit people have for thousands of years lived in the coastal areas of the Arctic from Greenland to western Alaska. The Inupiat Eskimos of Kaktovik and other Alaskan villages have long depended mainly on the Arctic Ocean for their subsistence. The inventors of the kayak, the canoe-like umiak, and the parka hunt whales, seals, and walrus, and fish for many ocean species. They hunt land animals as well such as the caribou, but sea mammals are their dietary mainstay.  

Bowhead Whale

A mix of modern and traditional hunting techniques are employed by the Inupiat. They use motorized umiaks and traditional harpoons to take the 40-50 foot Bowhead whale- a darting gun is used with black powder to quickly kill the whale after the harpoon is thrown. Then the men must tow the whale to shore, a dangerous prospect given the frequent storms of the Arctic Ocean. The villagers of Kaktovik are allowed to take 3 bowheads per year.

Whale Butchering

According to Kaktovik resident Robert Thompson, "Whales are a central part of our culture. Our ancestors became very concerned about our food supply around the turn of the century when   European whalers reduced the population to near extinction. But fortunately, whaling regulations have brought the bowhead back to about 10,000 animals." Now the people of Kaktovik see a new challenge to their whale hunting. If oil exploration and drilling come to the nearby mainland of the Refuge, pipelines and other drilling infrastructure will make ocean drilling a near certainty. According to Thompson, all the Eskimos living in the villages on the North Slope are opposed to ocean drilling.

Kaktovic Inupiat

While many of the residents of Kaktovik have been lured by promises of a large payday for individuals and the village as a whole if drilling comes about, recent concerns about ocean drilling have changed the sentiment. The 1988 exploratory oil well drilled by Conoco, the only well ever drilled in the Refuge, was the beginning of concern. This well was drilled just off-shore of the mainland and only a few miles from Kaktovik. Due largely to the noise from the well, no bowhead whale was taken that year by the village, the only year in memory when that was the case. According to Thompson, scientists have discovered that whales depend on ocean-transmitted sounds to communicate, and the noise of the drilling drove the bowheads far away from Kaktovik. Thompson passed an anti-drilling petition around the village this year, and 57 adult residents signed, representing over half of the number who voted in the most recent national election.  

Inupiat Dancer

For more information on the Iñupiat people, their culture, and the threats to their lifestyle from industrial oil development, visit the following links:

 

All photos on this page, except the first and fourth photos in the left-hand column are by Subhankar Banerjee. Photos (c) 2003 by Subhankar Banerjee. Excerpted with permission from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land by Subhankar Banerjee, The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA.