Two sides of the oil drilling debate

Both worlds: Gayle and Steven Tritt and their three children, Peter, 9; Adrien, 12; and Fiona, 11, split their time between tiny Arctic Village and urban areas where Steven Tritt works in construction.
Both worlds: Gayle and Steven Tritt and their three children, Peter, 9; Adrien, 12; and Fiona, 11, split their time between tiny Arctic Village and urban areas where Steven Tritt works in construction. (Sun photo by Marego Athans)
ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska -- In this tiny mountain village of log cabins, snowy paths dotted with spruce trees, one shower and one laundry facility, life is as peaceful and primitive as it gets in the United States.

Here, just south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, live 125 Gwich'in Indians, people who for centuries have lived off the caribou that migrate through their land each year on their way to and from calving grounds in the refuge.

In many ways, the Gwich'in still live as their ancestors did, in houses that have no running water or indoor heating. Plumbing is basically an indoor outhouse system, employing what are euphemistically called "honey buckets." There are no roads in and out, only a small, snow-covered landing strip. Most significantly at the moment, there are no oil dividends -- and that's fine for a tribe that resists being tainted by the modern world.

On the other side of the Brooks Range, on the Arctic Ocean, live the Inupiat Eskimos of Kaktovik, population 250, another group of Native Alaskans struggling to maintain their centuries-old language and traditions against the onslaught of the 21st century.

Just a generation or so away from the nomadic hunter's life, the Inupiat have reaped a fortune from the oil that flows from the vast Prudhoe Bay oil fields to the west -- and now have a fire station, a community center, a police department, a water plant, a power plant, a municipal services building and a modern school that recently spent $11,000 to send its basketball teams on a chartered plane to a regional tournament.

The two Native Alaskan groups stand on opposite sides of the debate over drilling in the remote refuge. They are living symbols of what stands to be lost, and gained, from drilling in the fragile Arctic tundra -- whether a lifestyle long intertwined with the wanderings of a caribou herd can be sustained, or whether that must give way to America's energy needs by accepting drilling in the ANWR, as the refuge is commonly called.

For centuries, the Gwich'in have relied on the Porcupine caribou herd, now 129,000 strong. Caribou meat, skin, fur and bones have been a primary source of food, clothing and shelter here, and the animal is a cultural and spiritual symbol. The Gwich'in people, as well as many scientists and environmentalists, fear that opening the refuge to oil interests will harm the delicate ecosystem and disrupt the caribou's migration pattern, which takes the herd from the Porcupine River Valley in Canada's Yukon Territory to its summer calving grounds in ANWR.

"To make people in the Lower 48 understand what caribou mean to us -- it's like their house, their job. To me, it's part of living, just like water, air, breathing, that basic human feeling about living," said Arctic Village resident Calvin Tritt, who grew up watching his grandfather train a telescope on the Brooks Range each July and remembers the excitement in the village when the tribal elder announced the first caribou coming over the mountain on their way south from the coastal plain.

In Kaktovik, to the north on the Arctic Ocean, people are wedded to a modern lifestyle, and they are worried that without a boost in new oil revenue, the village buildings and infrastructure will deteriorate. "It's an easy life, not like it used to be," said Isaac Akootchook, 79, an Inupiat elder and Presbyterian minister who lived in a sod house as a child and remembers spending much of his day hauling ice for drinking water and wood for fire.

"Now it's good; it's warm all night. You can have 24-hour light if you want it, 24-hour TV if you want it," he said.

All over Alaska, declining oil revenues are hurting municipal and school budgets, a trend fueling calls among state and congressional leaders to open ANWR.

Opening the refuge "has to happen for the longevity of the community, as long as there's strong oversight," said Dale DuFour, the facilities manager at Kaktovik's Kaveolook School, which underwent remodeling in the late 1970s when oil revenues began to roll in.

"Everything you see is from the oil industry" he said, standing in front of a computerized box in the maintenance office that controls the air handling system, heating and fire alarm -- and pages him in emergencies. "This school is here because of the oil industry."

The school itself, named after the first teacher sent by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to educate the Inupiat children, seems to blend the two worlds. It is clean, airy, modern looking and orderly. Symbols of Inupiat traditions contrast with the modern conveniences oil money can buy.

Colorful murals in the style of traditional Eskimo art cover the walls near the main office. They feature caribou, whales, ducks, geese, polar bears, mountains, the coastal plain, sea life and people dancing on the beach and riding snow machines.

In the welding shop, students are making ulu knives, traditional half-moon-shaped Eskimo knives for cutting whale blubber, called muktuk -- an idea that would be unfathomable in most American schools.

Signs on the classroom doors are in English and Inupiaq, the Inupiat native language. "Teachers' workroom," for instance, is "Ilisaurrit Savaalugviat." On an early spring afternoon in the classroom where the native language is taught, middle-school pupils are learning the tools to survive in the wilderness. "The first thing hunters do is look up at the stars, and once they see the Big Dipper, they can tell where they are," the teacher says, then recites the words for all the things you see in the sky: sun, moon, stars, northern lights.

The students sport T-shirts, sweatshirts and running shoes that would get them through the hallways of any Baltimore school unnoticed. Like teen-agers all over Alaska, they are wild about basketball, evidenced by the March Madness bracket on the wall of the combined seventh- and eighth-grade classroom. The appeal of basketball is particularly intense in rural villages hungry for indoor entertainment through the long, dark winters.

Although 78 percent of the village's adults favor drilling for oil in the refuge, according to a city poll -- the students had mixed opinions. The community needs the jobs and the money, they said, but they worry that the land would end up looking like a "boiler room," that it would hamper hunting and camping, and that the influx of new jobs and outsiders would water down the Inupiat culture and bring negative influences such as drugs and alcohol into the dry town. Asked if they would like to turn the clock back 100 years and return to the primitive days, several said they would.

"If it's worth it for our culture, I'd go back in one second," said Stephanie Aishanna.

Despite enjoying the modern comforts bestowed by oil, the pull of the traditional lifestyle is evident in all four generations of Eve Ahlers' family, which settled here in the early 1950s when Ahlers was 5, forsaking a nomadic life following the caribou, fish, seals and mountain sheep from here to Canada with a team of sled dogs.

They came because her father got a job on the Defense Early Warning project, known as the DEW Line, a Cold War project that kept watch for attacking Russian bombers and missiles. The first winter, which they spent in an unheated wall tent, took the life of her newborn sister, Maggie, who became sick and died in the cold. Eve, like most children of her generation, was sent to boarding school in Oregon after eighth grade because the village had no high school. After attending college and working in Fairbanks and Barrow, she eventually returned to Kaktovik and married a white man who worked on the DEW Line, Loren Ahlers, and started a family.

Their daughter, Sandi, 29, also returned after attending high school in California, having a baby with her high-school sweetheart and training to be a health aide. She now works in the Kaktovik clinic. She loves to hunt and works on a whaling crew during the village's annual whaling season each September.

"It's home," she said. "I love it here, the smallness of the village.

"You don't smell anything but freshness," she said over lunch at her grandmother's house, where three generations gathered for caribou soup, fried caribou, musk ox and muktuk.

Annie Soplu, 78, who does not speak English, lives in a small house with a modern kitchen and photos of her 13 grandchildren and great-grandchildren plastering the living room walls. She sits smoking on the living room couch, with Charlie Rose's talk show on TV.

In a small room off the kitchen are two large freezers full of walrus, fish, dried caribou, caribou muscles, caribou fat (for Eskimo ice cream), caribou chunks, beluga whale, muktuk and bearded seal skin. Past the freezer, a small room is loaded with wolf skin and wolverine fur, which Soplu will use to make colorful parkas, boots and gloves. Hunting is still an important part of village life, though game is pursued from snow machines.

At the other end of the house, on a full-length mirror at the end of the hall near her bedroom, are two bumper stickers for Arctic Power, the organization funded largely by the state and oil companies to lobby for the opening of ANWR. Annie's son, Joe, put them there, but the whole family supports oil drilling.

"That's what the oil is there for," said Sandi Ahlers. "God, I believe, put it there for a reason, and they need to go down and get it."

The town has a few vocal dissenters. One of them, Robert Thompson, has been shunned by some fellow Inupiats for his point of view; he and his wife, Jane, have had trouble getting jobs. Not only would drilling harm the delicate ecosystem, he said, it would lead to a form of cultural genocide.

"I look at it [as being] similar to the West, the killing of buffalo to get rid of the Indians," he said, sitting in his living room, the walls lined with masks made of caribou skin and fur and sculptures of ships made of baleen extracted from the upper jaws of whales, some of which he crafted himself. Outside in a sled is a musk ox he had just killed for its meat and fur. "It's not right to end a culture like that."

While people here generally favor drilling in ANWR, they strongly oppose drilling offshore -- arguing that it would threaten whale, seal and other sea populations, especially because it's so difficult for oil companies to clean up oil spills in the ocean.

In Kaktovik, whales are as significant to the Inupiat culture as caribou are to the Gwich'in; each September, eight or nine boats hunt for the three whales allotted by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. They feed the village (and some polar bears) for months to come. After the whales are caught in the early fall, the whole village comes together at Thanksgiving, at Christmas and again in June to eat whale meat and muktuk, often served with A1 sauce and french fries, two local favorites.

Even though the town has benefited from oil money, life here is expensive and hard. Food that isn't hunted has to be flown in, at $1.40 a pound just for the freight. That means $5.40 for 5 pounds of potatoes. At the Kikiktak Store, owned by the native corporation, a gallon of milk costs $6, a dozen eggs cost $3.19. Fresh fruits and vegetables are rare, and when they do come, they're often rotted after sitting in Prudhoe Bay too long.

But the hardships here are nothing compared with those on the other side of the Brooks Range, in Arctic Village, where young adults remember growing up with kerosene lamps because there was no electricity.

In the winter, obtaining water for drinking and washing still means hauling ice from the lake, melting and boiling it, making dishwashing a several-hour affair.

Police and ambulance services come from Fairbanks, the closest city, a 1 1/2 -hour flight over the Yukon Flats and the White Mountains.

Flights, in a nine-seat plane, cost about $300 roundtrip. Planes leave once a day, but when the weather is bad, as it often is, the traveler is stuck, and so is the mail, which travels on the same craft.

Under winter's cover of snow, the place has a postcard-quality beauty. Closer to civilization, say in the Rocky Mountains, the vistas from the windows of these log cabins would make them prime real estate.

In the late afternoon, teen-agers bundled in parkas and waterproof bibs buzz around on snow machines carrying rifles, heading for the mountains to shoot ptarmigan, a sort of arctic turkey.

Cross-country skis lean against the schoolhouse building where the kindergartners through third-graders attend class. On this day, the teacher, Gene Borchert, finishes a lesson on cities for squirming third-graders, then supervises a federally subsidized lunch of corn dogs.

He is also the principal of the school, which has 45 pupils.

The people here, who are among about 7,000 Gwich'in Indians living in Alaska and Northwest Canada in small villages along the Porcupine caribou's migratory route, say that greed has driven the Inupiat and other Native Alaskans to sell out. They hunt for caribou as the herd comes south from ANWR for the winter, and on its return north to calve.

On advice from the tribe's elders, the Gwich'in opted out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, refusing to give up their claims to 1.8 million acres on the edge of ANWR.

Under the act, most Native Alaskans, including the Inupiat, yielded tribal claims to state and federal land in Alaska in return for a cash settlement of $965 million and stock in native-owned corporations, which gained title to some land and the underlying mineral deposits. Some of these corporations foundered, but others have flourished, paying dividends to native shareholders. The Inupiat of Kaktovik received title to more than 92,000 acres, most of it in ANWR.

"Money is not good for the people. It might be good for white people -- some white people -- but it's not good for Gwich'in people," said Trimble Gilbert, 65, elder and minister, speaking with the accent of his native language. He is sitting in a log cabin he built atop a small hill. His wife, Mary, is cooking supper and his teen-age granddaughter is watching TV. "If there's going to be a lot of money coming in, there's going to be too much drugs and alcohol. We've lost a lot of people to alcohol."

"I feel like I'm safe on this land," he said. "When I pass the boundary [into tribal land], I feel comfortable. Taking care of one another is the only way we survive. It's sad to see the dividend checks coming in and everybody leaving. That's what I'm afraid of."

Nevertheless, without oil money, the community is dependent on welfare to supplement the subsistence lifestyle. And despite efforts to continue the language and culture among younger generations, the outside world has crept in, including drugs and alcohol, even though Arctic Village, like many Native Alaskan communities, is officially dry. In the center of the village, a satellite dish towers over the log cabin next to it. Dropping in on villagers at home, a visitor will invariably find a television on.

Cindy Gilbert, 16, said she might want to settle here, but hasn't thought much about how she'd support herself and her 2-year-old daughter.

"I wouldn't need a job here; it's just a small village," she said. "There's not that much to do. For food, I could just buy it with food stamps."

Steven and Gayle Tritt have tried to strike a balance between the old and new worlds by moving around the state during part of the year on Steven Tritt's construction jobs -- returning, in a sense, to a nomadic lifestyle.

Both were raised in the village and are tied to its traditions. They want their three children to learn what they learned but also get a more rigorous high school education and learn to get along in the wider world.

Steven Tritt is planning to put together a sled dog team so that his children can have a chore, hauling wood, that also teaches traditional work skills. The eldest son, Adrien, 12, killed his first caribou at age 10 and boiled the head to make a soup, which he served to village elders as a sign of respect. He now regularly goes on hunting trips, but also enjoys playing computer games -- Dragon Ball Z is his favorite.

"We want our kids to experience both cultures," Gayle Tritt said.

The Gwich'in have opposed opening ANWR each time the idea has come up over the years. Now that it has become a full-scale political and public relations war in Washington, the village is getting new visitors.

"We've had senators and congressmen come to Arctic Village and say, 'You'll all be rich if you just support us opening ANWR," said Evon Peter, the 25-year-old elected village chief, who -- with short-cropped hair, a hooded sweatshirt and camouflage pants, looks like a university student.

"They say, 'We can guarantee you all six-figure incomes. ... We usually just give them a plate of caribou meat and say, 'Enjoy.'"

"One way to look at it is a human rights issue," Peter said. "Caribou -- we live off the meat, the clothing, the skin, the fur. Our life is tied to them. What happens to them happens to us. A threat to them is a threat to us.

"We don't have jobs; we don't have an economy. What we do have is animals and the land that provide us with our way of life."

On a larger scale -- and speaking from his own experience studying the history of Native Americans -- Peter relates the drilling effort to "colonization, subjugation and enslavement."

"They've taken it to a new, modern, technical, politically correct level," he said, "but the push is to find resources that create more wealth for them and displace the indigenous people."