The importance of hunting can be seen all over Kaktovik, which is on an island in the refuge's coastal plain, where drilling would occur. On opposite ends of the island, near the water, lie two piles of whale bones left over from the annual hunt. The blubber and skin, called muktuk, was carved up and distributed throughout Kaktovik, where leftovers remain in residents' freezers.
Local artists use bones from the whale's mouth, called baleen, to create elaborate carvings. The hooded parkas and mittens worn by many Inupiats include fur and skin from wolf, caribou and seal that were killed by the people who wear them.
At the town's post office, Robert Thompson, left, and postmaster David Tetreau examine Tetreau's new gun.
(Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
Some who live here said drilling would not harm these traditions and that environmentalists are stoking fears of offshore development to sway opinion.
Marie Kaveolook, 46, said she supports drilling for economic reasons. "People would have better jobs," said Kaveolook, an aide in the town's school, named after her father. "The place would get better services."
Kaveolook and others are concerned about cutbacks in school field trips and local government services, such as the health aide, because of declining oil production elsewhere on the North Slope. Much of the government's revenue comes from oil royalties.
The recent opposition movement was born in the cramped living room of Kaktovik resident Robert Thompson. He said he detected shifting opinion about drilling in February, after news reports of Gov. Murkowski's predictions about offshore drilling. Murkowski said oil companies are not interested in drilling off the refuge's coast because doing so would require laying expensive pipelines in the Beaufort Sea, around the refuge, which is now off-limits. But Murkowski said that with the refuge open, companies would find it economical to pipe the oil back to shore and through the refuge.
Thompson said the governor's logic helped persuade people to sign the petition. Offshore drilling is almost universally opposed in this 284-person town for fear that the noise associated with drilling would scare away whales or that a spill could pollute their habitat.
The annual whaling expedition has deep cultural roots here. The hunt unifies residents and provides food for three community celebrations and other meals.
Sheldon Brower, a 36-year-old worker at the power plant, proudly showed a video on his laptop computer of last year's hunt. His daughter Irene, 13, served as a lookout on his 18-foot boat.
"When you're bringing in the whale, the feeling you get is overwhelming," he said. "Practically the whole town is at the beach hollering. It's just one big, glorious, happy day. All the crews feel like we accomplished something -- we just fed the town."