Alaska Town Split Over Drilling in Wildlife Refuge
Saturday, April 23, 2005
KAKTOVIK, Alaska -- In the long struggle over drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Inupiat Eskimos who live in this outpost have played a key role. Their steadfast support for development is routinely cited as a major reason to allow oil companies into the refuge.
But when a delegation of U.S. senators and Cabinet secretaries landed on the unpaved runway here last month, an unusual sight greeted them: the first protest anyone can remember in Kaktovik. A handful of residents chanted slogans and unfurled signs opposing oil drilling, reflecting a small but significant shift in sentiment against proposed legislation that would permit drilling on the nearby tundra.
Residents in this town of compact wood houses and unpaved roads -- the only settlement within the refuge -- have long equated oil development with financial well-being. But a recent petition opposing drilling attracted the signatures of 57 of Kaktovik's 188 adults, and Mayor Lon Sonsalla said he is no longer certain where the majority stand.
Many Inupiats here question whether opening the refuge will endanger something they value most: their traditions -- especially the annual bowhead whale hunt, their strongest link to the past. They worry that drilling on land will eventually expand into the waters offshore, where residents have long opposed drilling for fear it will interfere with whale migration. Recent comments by Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R) predicting that opening the refuge would lead to offshore development ignited their concerns.
After decades of debate, Congress appears closer than ever to approving drilling. The House on Thursday passed an energy bill that calls for drilling, and the Senate last month included it in a budget resolution. Supporters expect to iron out those differences in conference and include the refuge in the budget.
The opinions of natives in Kaktovik have become critical to the debate. While the town has no vote in the matter, members of Congress have been saying that Kaktovik strongly favors drilling, citing that as a reason for opening the refuge.
"My position is based on my experiences in Alaska when I visited the village of Kaktovik in 1995 and spoke to the Inupiat peoples, who greatly desire this opportunity for economic self-determination," Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said last month on the Senate floor before voting for drilling. "To me, [the issue] is really about whether or not the indigenous people who are directly impacted have a voice about the use of their lands."
Spokesmen for Akaka and other lawmakers who support drilling said they have remained in touch with people from Kaktovik and think most still want drilling.
But some Inupiats here said lawmakers in Washington, four time zones away, have failed to take note of the shifting views.
Standing in her small grocery store, Carla Sims Kayotuk, 37, said she recently came out against drilling because of concern over the impact on hunting caribou and other animals used for food, art and clothing. "I've never really taken a stand before -- I've always supported the community position," Kayotuk said. "But I changed by mind this year. . . . They want to do the drilling where my family goes to hunt."
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.