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In Alaska a Debate Over Oil Drilling - 2001-09-08

A proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has divided the native Americans who live in the region. Much needed development to one group is a threat to another.

In Arctic Village, Alaska, 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, people use gasoline and other oil products just as they do in a larger city. The village's 150 residents travel in summer by all-terrain vehicle and in winter by snowmobile.

They have no running water and no sewage system, but they do have electricity, satellite televisions and computers with Internet access. The local people, called Gwich'in, are Athabascan Indians who say they embrace both the modern world and their traditional culture.

But the Gwich'in are vocal opponents of a proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. Faith Gemmill is a spokeswoman for the Gwich'in Steering Committee, which was formed to oppose oil drilling in ANWR. "The official position of the Gwich'in nation is that we are not opposed to all oil development," Ms. Gemmill says. "We're opposed to development in the birthplace and nursery of the porcupine caribou herd, which is on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

The Gwich'in hunt the caribou and use the animals' skin and fur for their ceremonial clothing. Young people are given training in traditional tribal values during the annual caribou hunt on nearby Timberline Mountain. Although the Gwich'in speak English in their day-to-day life, their elders help to keep alive their native language.

Gwich'in elder Allen Tritt says his people use every part of the caribou they hunt down. They tan the caribou hide and dry the meat, which forms the basis for the diet of the older Gwich'in.

The Gwich'in say oil development in the north-coast calving grounds would disrupt the caribou and reduce their numbers. The natives say that would bring an end to the Gwich'in way of life.

Some biologists agree that the caribou would be threatened. Others side with the oil industry, which insists that the caribou can co-exist with oil development. They point to a thriving caribou herd at Prudhoe Bay, a massive oil field west of ANWR, to prove their point.

The Bush administration and many Republicans in Congress want to open the coastal plain to oil exploration. They say it is a matter of energy security because the United States now imports more than half of the oil that it uses. Supporters say drilling would affect less than one-tenth of the refuge, and they note a 1980 law that doubled the size of the refuge left open the possibility that oil could be extracted from its coastal region.

Another native group, the Inupiat Eskimos of the north coast of Alaska, welcome the oil companies. They hold leasing rights to 37,00 hectares of native land in ANWR, at the Eskimo village of Kaktovik.

Richard Glenn is the son of an Eskimo mother and a Caucasian father. He is a vice president of the Inupiat native corporation. Mr. Glenn says the Inupiat are just as concerned as the Gwich'in about their land and the animals that live there. "The difference is that we've observed that responsible oil and gas exploration and possible development can co-exist with our values," he says. "And it won't endanger our food, our spiritual connection to our land, nor to the animals. And so it's not an either/or situation. The country's big."

The Inupiat and Gwich'in say they respect each other's positions. But some Inupiat point out that the Gwich'in once opened their land for oil exploration, changing their position after no oil was found there. The Gwich'in respond that their Indian cousins in Canada, where other Gwich'in reside, were poorly treated by the companies that drilled for oil on their land. The Gwich'in say they no longer trust the oil firms.

Inupiat Eskimo Warren Matuleak is 73-years-old and says oil have brought major changes to his home city of Barrow. Once a tiny village, it has grown to 4,000 people, attracting workers from as far away as the Philippines. Mr. Matuleak grew up in an unheated one-room house, using seal oil lamps for lighting. Oil revenues have brought schools and medical clinics, flush-toilets and washing machines, and he says these things have not hurt his Eskimo culture. "You have running water," Mr. Matuleak says. "You just put your clothes in your washing machine and you let it do the work. That's good."

A former governor says Alaska is facing hard choices in its role as wilderness park to the world and oil barrel to the United States. Adding to the dilemma is the challenge of keeping alive Alaska's traditional cultures. Two Alaskan native groups cannot agree on how to do that.