Eskimos from across the polar northland began meeting today in this remote city 347 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the first international attempt at politically uniting nearly 100,000 Eskimos scattered across the world.
The five-day gathering includes nearly 200 Eskimo representatives who flew in - Barrow has no access by road - from Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Finland for what is being called the first Intuit, or Eskimo People's Circumpolar Conference.
"The opportunity is here for the first time for the creation of what some people are beginning to call the Eskimo nation," said Eben Hopson, Barrow's 55-year-old Eskimo mayor and the primary organizer of the conference.
Since Barrow has only one small hotel, most delegates arrived carrying sleeping bags. They were housed in thelocal school on serveral hundred folding Army cots flown up to this northernmost tip of the North American continent for the occasion. At least four Eskimo dialects are being spoken by the delegates, and the conference is being conducted through translators.
The conference is partly funded by a $90,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation. Hopson declined to detail the remainder of the funding.
Conference officials said they sought unsuccessfully through the Soviet embassy in Washington to contact andinvite representative of nearly 2,000 Eskimos living in Siberia.
The group will concern itself, Hopson said, with such international Eskimo problems as the lack of a unified "Arctic policy" to handle intrusion into traditional Eskimo land areas by energy companies seeking oil, coal and natural gas. It will also deal with the establishment of better transportation and communication routes to link up isolated population centers, and with broad-based Eskimo representation on critical whaling and wildlife regulatory agencies.
Coincidentally, the conference comes only a week before another major Arctic event - the first oil input into the Alaskan pipeline at Prudhoe Bay, about 350 miles cast of here. The pipeline is seen by many here as casuing a dramatic change in Alaskan Eskimo ways.
In a draft charter proposed today, Hopson and the Alaskan delegation sought an Artic policy which would give Eskimos separate national status in dealing with oil and gas development in then orthland, including the right to impose regulations to preserve their life style.
"The problem has been that up to now the oil industry has been used to dealing with nations, and they just haven't cared what happened to the Eskimos or other local groups," said Hopson.
It is clear right here in Barrow that oil that had a substantial impact on Eskimo life. The North Slope borough, which Hopson helped organize in 1972 and which covers a 650-mile swath across the top of Alaska, receives about $30 million, or 98 per cent of its annual operating budget, from a tax on oil.
For a political jurisdiction of only about 4,000 persons - most of them Eskimos and more than half living in Barrow - the oil income has produced a peculiar and dramatic set of contrasts. Eskimos haul whale meat through the midnight twilight along the still frozen Arctic Ocean shore on crude sleds pulled by new snowmobiles. Youngsters race motorcycles day and night through Barrow's unpaved streets. And the cluster of small wooden houses is dominated by a huge modern supermarket, a sprawling new borough hall and a new hospital and hotel - all jointly Eskimo owned.
In addition to energy development, Eskimos have brought a number of other considerations to the conference. Canadian Eskimos are seeking home rule status and their own 105,000 square miles for the 2,500 who live in Canada's Northwest Territories. Eskimos from northern Quebec said they are concerned about international quotas on polar bear hunting. Greenland's delegates arrived talking about the growing home rule movement by the 40,000 Eskimo residents of their Danish-owned island.
Because the conference here comes at the same time as the traditional whaling festival in Barrow, there will also be several Eskimo dance troupes here, a soapstone carver, and a group of Eskimo "throat chanters" from nothern Quebec.
"Eskimos may be citizens of different countries but there's a separate kinship that they feel among themselves," said Joseph Angma, a 25-year-old delegate from northern Quebec who arrived worried about cutbacks in polar bear hunting ordered for Canadian Eskimos.
"In the past, most of us dealt with these things on our own, and we didn't have any idea what Eskimos from many other areas are like," he said. "Now we're going to get that chance, and it's very exciting."