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True North

The Arctic is more than oil and caribou

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

One of the first mistakes the U.S. government made with Sarah James was to send her to typing school. A Gwich'in Native American from Arctic Village, 110 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, James had never been a good student in the usual sense. Her father was a subsistence hunter and trapper and moved his family to follow the game-moose, caribou, lynx-during the long, harsh arctic winters. James finally started her formal education at the Wrangell Institute, a state-run boarding school for Native Americans that had been used during World War II as an internment camp for Aleut Indians. She was 13, spoke only Gwich'in, and was illiterate.

James may not have been able to read Jack London's famous story "To Build a Fire" with the rest of her class, but neither would she have frozen to death like London's main character. "I learned a lot of responsibility on the land," James, now 57, recalls. "I learned to ration food and stay alive in seventy-below weather; how to share, because when you share things stretch out; how to hunt and trap; make tools and toboggans. My mother did beadwork, tanned all the skins, sewed furs, made soap, smoked meat. I learned that, too."

In Gwich'in culture, you don't talk back to elders--which means anyone older than you--so as the youngest of nine children, James spent much of her childhood keeping her thoughts to herself. All that changed after she graduated from high school. When she was 23, she signed on to a government relocation program intended to move Indians off their tribal land and assimilate them into mainstream America. She figured she needed to learn a trade, like typing, that would bring in money. "I chose a technical school in San Francisco," she says, grinning, "because in the pictures the women didn't wear makeup and the men had long hair. It seemed close to my culture." She'd never been out of Alaska; it was 1967.

James mastered the keyboard, but she was getting a real education at night--meeting Native Americans from around the country, arguing about politics, broken treaties, self-determination. It was the beginning of the Red Pride movement, which included the occupation of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay from late 1969 to the summer of 1971, and James was in the vanguard. "I was on the last boat over before they blockaded the island," she recounts. "We were trying to find the answers. We'd talk all night. It was one of the most exciting times of my life." She left Alcatraz and returned to her tribal lands when she received word that her father had died suddenly. But she came home transformed--a thorn in the side of all outside interests (including Alaska's various congressional delegations and British Petroleum) that would try to develop lands she and her people hold sacred. One of those places is the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. James is part of the vanguard here as well, building coalitions, making speeches from Anchorage to Ecuador, and fighting what has become an obsession for some elected officials lately--opening the refuge to oil drilling.

We are standing in the Arctic Village cemetery, where James's parents and many of her relatives are buried. She rests a hand on her mother's cross, which she and one of her brothers carved from local timber. They also made their mother's casket. The colorful beadwork that hangs in strips of caribou hide from the cross is Sarah James's creation as well. The beads clink woefully in the mosquito-filled, late-August breeze coming in off the Chandalar River just below us.

The cemetery is the most festive-looking spot in Arctic Village, population 130 to 180 (it fluctuates seasonally). Distance and subsistence separate village residents from most Americans. Here, extravagance is both unwise and unaffordable: Homes are compact so they can be heated by wood-burning stoves; windows are small, to keep the precious heat from escaping. Binoculars resting on a sill aren't used to peep at neighbors but to see if the door to the washeteria--the only building with running water--is open. With no roads linking the village to the rest of Alaska, most get around on all-terrain four-wheelers. There are only two proper vehicles--both belonging to the school--to haul supplies from bush planes idling at the airstrip two miles away (the trucks were flown in by plane as well). There are two tiny stores, though neither has a sign out front. There are no hotels. All outsiders must ask permission to visit from the village chief, and are put up in private homes.

"My niece committed suicide in 1998," James says, pointing at another brightly decorated grave. "My sister and nephew over there died in an alcohol-related fire in Fairbanks." "Alaska" means "Great Land" in Aleut, but for many of today's Native Americans, it has become a place of great suffering as well. Suicide, alcoholism, and incarceration rates for Alaskan Natives are even higher than the already high rates for Native Americans in the Lower 48. Life is hard, and it's not just because of the weather.

Nevertheless, James is at home in Gwich'in country, which to her spreads out in all directions, even across the Chandalar River--the northern boundary that separates her tribe's 1.4 million acres of private lands from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ("Chandalar" is the Gwich'in approximation of the French term gens de large, or "wandering people," used by early French trappers to describe these Alaskan Natives.) "Every time of year is good here," she announces as we leave the graveyard and climb onto her four-wheeler. "I especially like it when it's cold." I hope to never know the 40-below winters she's talking about: It's late summer and I'm wearing four layers of clothing; she's in a T-shirt.

In the countryside, we come to a jolting stop after her four-wheeler, which has no brakes, careens into a scraggly spruce tree on a downhill slope--a fortuitous collision, actually, since we were picking up speed and at this latitude, above the timberline, obstacles are hard to come by. The view is spectacular, an intimate immensity with vistas as wide and mysterious as the human soul. To the north, there are mountains with names like Big Rock and Rock Falling on One Side. Beyond them, the refuge's Brooks Range, so vast and unspoiled that many peaks remain nameless, even among the Gwich'in.

The energetic James seizes the opportunity to introduce me to the ground cover: tundra tea, which she later brews on her cranky propane stove; a balsam poplar sapling, whose branches can be tied together and burned for warmth, even when green; caribou lichen, which, she explains, the animals eat during the winter, helping them retain water and nutrients; blueberry bushes, ripe with fruit, their leaves flamed red for fall. As we gorge on the berries, small but sweet and cinnamon-tasting, she apologizes for not having a rifle--hers is jammed--adding that she never comes this far out of the village without one. "Griz," she says, not needing to complete the word.

Heading back, we come upon a group of kids walking with buckets full of berries, their lips and a wide ring beyond purpled with berry juice, their teeth appearing unnaturally white as they smile and wave. When we pass the tribal council office, where a sign on the door reads "skin tanning demonstration," I'm perplexed. When I ask, James starts laughing so hard I fear we're going to crash again. "Caribou skins!" she yells back as I hang on for dear life.

James may love the abundance of this land, but she's not around much to enjoy it. A sturdy black-plastic suitcase sits by the door of her two-room log cabin, always at the ready. She's been on CNN, the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and CBS Evening News. She's testified several times before Congress and presided over rallies on the steps of the Capitol. She's spoken in Brazil, at the United Nations Earth Summit; in Ecuador, at the 500 Years Indian Resistance Conference; in Nicaragua, at the Fourth Biennial Congress on the Fate and Hope of the Earth; and in Guatemala, at the first Summit of Indigenous People. While in Guatemala, her bus was boarded by armed soldiers, who forced the men off at gunpoint. She remembers whispering to her seatmate, "I'm going to die for caribou?"

It may be 10,000 years, maybe 70,000--anthropologists are a little vague--but whatever the stretch, the Gwich'in have been in North America for a long time. Throughout, they have depended on game such as caribou for physical, cultural, and spiritual sustenance. Even today, they use every part of the animal: Caribou toenails, for example, protect the base of knife sheaths. Antlers hang like good luck charms over cabin doors. At the All-Gwich'in Gather, which happens every two years in Arctic Village and attracts people from all 15 Athabaskan Gwich'in villages in northern Alaska and Canada, there are caribou dances performed by men and women in caribou dress.

In Arctic Village, I stay with Jean and Calvin Tritt, who serve the Gwich'in staple for dinner. Calvin is a former marine who resembles the middle-aged Elvis Presley, but with long hair. He is also a mean cook. Even to this erstwhile vegetarian, the caribou meat he prepares tastes good, spicy without any added spice, and firm-textured. "Fighting for Indian country and for the caribou doesn't mean we're against the government," Tritt tells me over dinner, as we watch America's Most Wanted on his satellite TV. "We're just trying to have some control over our lives."

When the Porcupine caribou herd passes near the village during spring and fall migrations, hunters traditionally let the leaders pass unharmed, trusting they will take the caribou through again when the seasons change. Though this ritual persists, other aspects of the Gwich'in/caribou relationship have changed markedly. I sit with James in the tribal office as we check the Porcupine herd's movement via the Internet. (The caribou herd's name comes from a river along its migration path.) Collared caribou with names like Blixen and Lucky are emitting trackable satellite signals. Most of the 129,000 animals appear to be bunched near the coastal plain. This ancient caribou calving ground--whose Gwich'in name translates as "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins"--is also a battleground, and has been ever since oil was discovered in nearby Prudhoe Bay in 1968.

Though the coastal plain is part of the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, studies conducted by the Department of the Interior in the early 1970s determined that it potentially contained oil and gas beneath its frozen tundra. Ignoring the pleas of the Gwich'in and many environmental groups, Congress voted to put the coastal plain's 1.5 million acres into a political purgatory. Called the "1002 Area" in the Interior document that originally recommended the coastal-plain set-aside, the deal is that Congress can now bring to a vote, at any time, proposals to open it to oil and gas exploration and development.

Last year's late spring kept rivers in the refuge swollen longer than usual, so the caribou had trouble crossing into the calving grounds at their usual time. According to 27-year- veteran U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Fran Mauer, there is no evidence that any births took place in the primary Porcupine herd calving grounds of the coastal plain in 2001. Most years, the herd uncannily arrives at the calving grounds just when cotton grass plants are new, tender, and loaded with nutrients--before they develop their bitter, protective poisons. These shoots, which grow in an area animated by sea breezes that keep the swarms of hungry mosquitoes at bay, are particularly important to new mothers and their offspring. This year, however, many females were forced to have their calves in an area closer to the mountains, with higher numbers of predators and much less abundant and nutritious forage.

Mauer notes that in 2001, the survival rate for the calves was only 61 percent, compared with the annual average of 88 percent. The late spring also caused problems the previous year, when only 63 percent of the calves survived. "Movement is a fundamental survival strategy for caribou," says Mauer. "If you restrict them, you lessen their survival rate." For the last two years, the barrier has been the weather. Opponents of oil exploration on the coastal plain fear that drill pads, people, roads, and pipelines will become the new--and perhaps insurmountable--obstacles for the caribou.

Those who favor drilling argue that the Central Arctic caribou herd, which interacts with the Prudhoe Bay development, has grown since oil exploitation began. "True," says Mauer. "But in Prudhoe, there's a small herd with a vast area to roam in. The Porcupine herd is five times as big, and calves in an area that's one-fifth as wide [as the Prudhoe Bay grounds]. There's nowhere for them to go but back toward the mountains."

In Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony--a book published by Milkweed Editions last year after a proposal to drill was yet again introduced in Congress--Sarah James leads a list of contributors that includes Jimmy Carter, Bill McKibben, and Wendell Berry. "We are the caribou people," she states simply in the opening essay. "Maybe there are too few of us to matter. Maybe people think Indians are not important enough to consider in making their energy decisions. But it's my people who are threatened by this [proposed oil] development. We are the ones who have everything to lose." In James's judgment, "some places are too important, made especially for the animals. The calving grounds must be left alone."

James's worldview also underscores the importance of training the next generation. She recently won a Leader for a Changing World award from the Ford Foundation, and with it $130,000 for program development. James plans to use a good chunk of it to start a mentoring project for youth, but her guidance is already evident. "Sarah has taught me a lot about our history, culture, and stories," says Arctic Village's 25-year-old chief, Evon Peter. The college-educated Peter, who has the poise and looks of a Latin movie star, has just returned to Arctic Village from a march in Anchorage, where he spoke to more than 2,000 people at a rally dedicated to Native American subsistence rights. "Sarah's been one of the Native leaders I've been around my whole life. I watched how she worked, what she said, and learned from her knowledge."

James also mentored her niece Faith Gemmill. The 28-year-old is now the project coordinator for the Gwich'in Steering Committee, a well-organized political body opposed to drilling, on the grounds that it violates human rights. When I meet Gemmill in her tiny Fairbanks office, she is frantically trying to juggle childcare duties (the babysitter is late), a constantly ringing phone (colleagues in the environmental movement are calling from Hawaii for advice about an upcoming meeting with Senator Daniel Akaka, a swing vote on the energy committee), urgent faxes, and visitors. Her long fuchsia fingernails never stop moving. "Sarah got me into this!" she blurts out in mock-consternation.

Gemmill has become a seasoned public speaker, but it was in Arctic Village where she may have given her most impassioned speech. In 1995, Alaska senator Frank Murkowski came to town to try to convince the Gwich'in to support drilling. Gemmill remembers the meeting well. Murkowski stood at the front of the jam-packed community center and said that as he looked around the village he saw a very poor people, and that if they would only agree to oil development things would be much better for them. He promised that the Gwich'in would get first pick of jobs, and that if they were concerned about the caribou, he'd set up a Porcupine Caribou Commission to monitor the herd.

"I was shaking I was so upset," Gemmill recalls. "I took the mike from him and said, 'First of all, we are not poor people. We're rich. We have our land; it's intact, it's healthy. We have our culture; it's thriving. We have a living language. You live a different way, and you set more value on materialistic things. You will never understand us.'" As for the proposed commission, Gemmill said no thanks. "We always monitor the herd," she remembers saying. "We are already caretakers. We don't need you to create anything for us. So, what you're really offering us is nothing." Murkowski left empty-handed, and hasn't been back.

Today, Gemmill's diplomatic skills are keener. "We have an obligation," she maintains. "We have a responsibility to make sure that our younger generations have a choice. If they want to live on the land, they should have that choice. Our caribou should be healthy for them. Or if they want to live in the city and become doctors and lawyers, they should have that choice, too."

Last summer, James spoke at an emergency gathering of young people in Arctic Village, called to draw attention to Gwich'in opposition to drilling and attended by more than 500 Native Americans, environmentalists, and activists from around the world. She told the group she understood their fear about the future and their frustration that their voices weren't being heard in Washington. "But I also explained to them that our elders told us to do it in a good way." Asked what she means, she adds, "We share why we need to win, why we're saying no to development, why we want respect for our ways. We don't talk bad about our opponents, or pull out our guns."

A roasted leg of a Dall sheep, just killed by a neighbor over by Big John Lake, lies on James's counter. Duck wings are hammered above her stove. Christian crosses and eagle feathers hang from her bedroom window. A sign on her refrigerator reads, "Speak Gwich'in Here!!" We are sitting in her cabin at 10:30 in the evening, drinking tundra tea as the arctic light fades. James admits she has to constantly fight her anger. "The elders would get mad at me if I told them how much resentment I have, but look what's happened to our people: They've really suffered. They would just like to be able to continue their ways." She adds, "I love it here but I'm gone more than I'm home, fighting this greed," and then she's quiet.

Fortunately, James has Faith. "Elders like Sarah told us to 'do it in a good way and we will be successful,'" Gemmill assures me. "I believe in my heart that we are going to win; it's the only thing that keeps me going." The work of passing on wisdom and hope, as well as activism, has animated James's life. Though the future of the refuge remains uncertain, in at least one important way, James has already succeeded.

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's writer/editor.

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