2 Villages, 2 Views of the Dynamics of Oil


To view the seismic divide over the future of America’s last frontiers of wilderness, consider two young men who live on opposite edges of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Start with Berdell Akootchook, 21, who grew up in the Eskimo village of Kaktovik, population 293, alongside one of the nation’s most promising oil reserves. Akootchook dreams of becoming a pilot, flying in oil workers and supplies during the boom that will catapult his village into the 21st century if the refuge is opened to oil drilling.

“I’m sure there’d be a lot of people who would want to work over there,” he said.

Then there’s Evon Peter, the 25-year-old Gwich’in Indian chief of Arctic Village, a town of 152 lodged on the other end of the refuge, in the foothills of the majestic Brooks Range.


Peter has no oil dreams. To the contrary, he is convinced that oil production will doom the caribou that pass like a moving carpet across Timberline Mountain every spring on their way to lay down calves on the Arctic coastal plain.

“The whole history of Alaska is of white people coming in for natural resources, oppressing native people and becoming rich,” Peter said. “We are in a dynamic relationship with all other things: animals, land, spirits, us. If you have these things in balance, you’re being human.”

This is a tale of two villages and what could happen if Congress decides to open drilling on the refuge’s 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, alternately described as the most important of America’s wildlife refuges and the nation’s best chance of countering its dependence on foreign oil.

In a surprising way, these two remote villages, many of whose residents have never traveled farther than Anchorage, resound with much of the same debate heard on Capitol Hill, as America seeks to balance its escalating demands for energy against protecting what’s left of its last, great wild places.

Policymakers talk about energy security, wildlife protection, economic development, global warming. In Kaktovik and Arctic Village, people talk about gasoline for snowmobiles that costs $2.60 a gallon, about a broken-down school with lead in the plumbing, about houses with buckets in the kitchens that serve as toilets; they talk about how to make a fine mattress pad out of a caribou skin, how to teach a boy to lay his first fur trap line, how the sea ice is melting back faster than it ever did before, how a grizzly bear sleeps on what’s left of a caribou calf when he’s too full to eat any more.

How sometimes when you squat down on the Arctic coastal plain there’s so much natural oil oozing out of the soil you can pick it up with a spoon.


“Many people do not believe there is really a place in [the Arctic refuge] where there is a community hall, where there is a school, where there is a runway, where people actually raise their families and have hopes and aspirations for the future,” Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) said during a recent visit to Kaktovik.

In these two communities perched on the very edge of the world, the one thing almost everyone agrees on is that no one here will have anything at all to say about what that future holds.

Kaktovik and Arctic Village are about as far apart as Ventura and San Diego, and yet in these contentious times they might as well be on different planets.

The Eskimos now living on the North Slope around Kaktovik and the Gwich’in Indians in Arctic Village and surrounding mountain villages warred in earlier centuries.

The Eskimos always have been seagoing people, living off seals and polar bears and the bowhead whales that glide past the Arctic Coast in the spring and the fall. Because of that, they are adamantly opposed to offshore oil drilling that might threaten the marine environment; but oil production in the Arctic refuge at their backs makes good sense to them. They have seen oil development next door at Prudhoe Bay, and they know about the land’s ability to heal itself.

The Gwich’in turn up their noses at whale meat but live in perfected rhythm with the mysterious, wandering herd of 129,000 caribou that migrates between Gwich’in lands in Canada, through the snow-and-emerald peaks of the Brooks Range and, in the animals’ birthing cycle, down to the tundra of the Arctic coastal plain. To drill oil wells into the calving grounds of the caribou herd, most tribe members believe, is to pierce the soft place that a Gwich’in thinks of as himself.


With Oil Came Changing Times

Forget the calendar. One day, the temperature is 16 below zero and the snow is blowing so hard you can’t see across the street. No way to tell where the forlorn cemetery at the edge of town ends--a small line of crosses draped in frozen flowers--and the rough sea ice begins.

The next day, the wind stops. A pale blue bowl of sky looms over the coastal plain, and the sound of speeding snowmobiles can be heard all over town.

“When I got here, the power was unreliable and the roads were sinking out of sight,” recalled Kaktovik Mayor Lon Sonsalla. “It was so cold inside the house you could tell which way the wind was blowing by the way your breath was going.”

All that changed with the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, 120 miles west, in 1968.

In exchange for giving up their aboriginal rights to the suddenly valuable North Slope, Kaktovik residents took firm title to 92,160 acres of land, most of it within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The catch: Native Alaskan shareholders can’t develop the oil on their land until Congress makes up its mind to permit oil drilling.

Even Kaktovik’s relatively small share of the benefits of oil development at Prudhoe Bay has transformed the town. The North Slope Borough, which taxes oil facilities, has built a new school, a clinic, police station, fire station and community center. There are snowplows, trash pickup and water delivery.

At the school, 3 out of 5 fifth-graders scored in the 99th percentile, nationwide, in math.


“We’ve got the best of materials, anything we want, great class size. I’ve got 84 kids and nine teachers--that’s not bad,” Principal Steve Pile said.

Graduating seniors have raised $19,000 making pizzas, hauling ice and selling raffle tickets. They will use the money for a class trip to Hawaii and Los Angeles. Until now, few have ever been farther than Fairbanks.

For many, Pile said, oil development is a chance to get a meaningful job, to earn enough money to have choices. Only one high school senior in the last several years has left Kaktovik, and that was to join the Army.

“What they want to have happen and what actually happens are two different things. They say they want to go to college, to get a job. But they don’t know how to take a bus or go into a restaurant, how to run an elevator, how to cross the street--it’s all so foreign to them,” Pile said.

“The thing is, every kid in this village has a sense of place. Every kid in this village knows they belong somewhere. They know they belong here, and they have a hell of a time breaking free of it.”

Most boys here grow up crewing on a whaling boat. But even though 17-year-old Alicia Rexford has broken the traditional sex barrier and made it onto a crew, she’d like to go away to college. If the Arctic refuge is developed, she said, she could return as a wildlife biologist. “I could work for one of the oil companies and study whatever,” she said.


Berdell Akootchook got a job dredging gravel after high school and would have been happy enough at that had he not watched a Discovery Channel show about airplanes. After that, he couldn’t think of anything else.

He talked his mother into driving down the 487-mile dirt-and-gravel haul road from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks, out the Alaska-Canada Highway to Oshkosh, Wis., to the famous Experimental Aircraft Assn. air show. He never forgot it.

Now, Akootchook is working as a village coordinator for the North Slope borough, a good-paying job. But his plan is to go to flight school in Anchorage, maybe join the Air Force. Then, if the Arctic refuge is developed, he could be a pilot for an oil company.

“It’d be nice to live here and be a pilot,” he said.

The mayor said something had better happen soon. With the dwindling of oil production at Prudhoe Bay, the borough’s budget is shrinking, and layoffs are in the works. In the meantime, things aren’t getting any cheaper. Because of the huge costs of importing materials, it costs $330,000 to build a small house in Kaktovik, and the new water-sewer project will cost $750,000 per toilet to put plumbing in the 85% of houses that still don’t have one.

“People need not just a job but . . . a good job, something they can be excited about,” Sonsalla said. “As far as living off the land here, there’s only a certain carrying capacity. There’s only so many caribou, so many musk ox and ptarmigan.

“You look at the Gwich’in, they kind of expect everything to come to them. And if the caribou kind of change their path, it’s somebody’s fault.”


Holding to Their Way of Life

When Kaktovik and other Native Alaskan villages were signing away their aboriginal rights with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, the Gwich’in of Arctic Village and nearby Venetie said no. Better, they said, to keep title to 1.8 million acres of tribal land. Refuse to set up a native corporation. Refuse to form a city.

Village leaders took their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1998 against the Gwich’in’s attempt to impose their own sovereignty over the land by assessing taxes. So, Arctic Village decided to live without local taxes--or oil money. There is no new fire department, no new school, no flush toilets. There are only three cars in the entire village.

The Gwich’in’s fight against oil development in the Arctic refuge is really about far more than caribou, the village’s livelihood. In their minds, it is about their right to live off a healthy land--and their right to decide what constitutes a healthy land.

“We asked people whether they wanted to go with [the settlement act] or stay the way we were. It was a landslide vote to stay the way we were. We wanted to stay tied to the land,” said Sarah James, who has traveled the world lobbying against oil development on the refuge.

“What did we get out of the Prudhoe Bay oil field? We didn’t get nothing out of it. From my perspective, we got a rise in alcoholism in the state of Alaska,” said Edward Sam, talking recently in the one-room tribal office in Arctic Village.

“And we still pay $5 a gallon for gas up here,” James added.

Arctic Village sits in a wooded valley off the East Fork of the Chandalar River, a snowy cluster of log cabins under a bright sky and a thin haze of wood smoke.


At the school, Peter gathers students at least once a week for a native studies class. He wants them to learn things that won’t be found in textbooks: who the early Gwich’in leaders were, how the Russians and Europeans brought disease to the villages.

“When the Russians came, what did they want?” he asks the class.

“Fur,” several reply.

“What kind of fur?”

“Sea otters.”

“How did they treat the Aleuts?”

“Like slaves.”

“Who today has the strongest language and culture still in use today?”


Peter is the youngest tribal chief in Alaska. “From the time I was 13, I thought about what I was going to do with my life. I quit going to Western schools, and I started going to all the tribal meetings,” he said.

Peter was raised on the land with his grandfather in Arctic Village, setting his first trap line at age 7 and selling muskrat furs for $2 apiece. Then he went away to college at the University of Alaska, where he majored in native studies and political science and went on to become a speaker and writer on native Alaskan issues such as self-determination and spirituality.

Against all expectations, he came back to Arctic Village, his 3-year-old son from a college love affair in tow. He wanted to make sure the village children went to school, learned to speak Gwich’in and saw--really saw--what was happening around them. He has encouraged the village to invest in a solar energy development project that will tie in with the village electricity grid in May or June. He is applying for grants for a hydroelectricity project.

“We want to show that a small community can be sustainable and live relatively at balance in the world,” he said. There is no need, he tells the others, to have more oil development in the Arctic.

“As you see the progress of Western involvement in Alaska, it doesn’t change much. The gold rush. And when oil was discovered on the North Slope, the Western people who are rich and elite wanted to get more rich and more elite.”


The class files out of the room, and Peter looks down at his son, now asleep under a table at his feet. With an apologetic grin, he crawls down on the floor next to the boy, lays an arm across his shoulders, and falls asleep.

In the waning light outside, the first sparrows of spring are darting through the trees. The caribou can’t be far behind.