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Are Point Hope's high cancer rates linked to 'Project Chariot'?

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
Courtesy Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson

Nearly a decade ago, Jana Harcharek started to brainstorm with a few young filmmakers about how to tell some of the vital history of the North Slope in the voice of its Native people. One of those people was Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson of Barrow, whose Inupiaq heritage originates in Point Hope -- where her newest documentary project was filmed.

Harcharek is the director of the Inupiaq Education Department for the North Slope Borough School District. "Project Chariot" is a documentary that ties prospective nuclear testing by the federal government with past and current health issues in Point Hope. It is the third film in an educational series that fits into the curriculum of North Slope schools.

"The idea is that we are teaching and presenting history from our perspective rather than as a people being looked at from the outside," Harcharek said. "And then equipping students with the skills they need in order to analyze where we are in society today."

The initial Project Chariot was a 1950s proposal to use nuclear weapons to create a deep-water harbor near Point Thompson, 30 miles south of Point Hope in the Chukchi Sea.

Important to Iñupiaq history  

The idea proposed in the film is that the sparsely populated Arctic Slope was thought to be a good candidate for nuclear testing, given its rural demographic and the unlikely resistance of its quiet inhabitants.

That resistance was much stronger than anticipated, and the bombs were never set off. However, there remain some unknowns.

"We set out to tell the story of Project Chariot so that our future generations could understand this important part of Iñupiaq and American history," Edwardson wrote in an email response. "The most important and immediate conclusion was that the Project Chariot saga is still continuing. The Point Hope people are still asking for answers and have reason to worry for the health of the community."

While she had hoped her documentary work would answer a lot of questions, Edwardson said she and her crew have been met with significant resistance from the federal government, which continues to withhold much of the vital information needed to understand the history of what exactly was and was not conducted in Point Hope.

Point Hope suffers from a high rate of cancer — the leading cause of death among residents. The film discusses the fact that while the bombs ultimately were not detonated, there are many unknowns surrounding what kind of testing or experiments were conducted in the area.

While Project Chariot covers the emotional realities of cancer in the Arctic community, and numerous examples of dishonesty from government officials, it tells another story as well.

It describes the uniting of several communities against the nuclear explosions proposed for harbor creation. It tells the story of the leaders who came together to fight for their case for protecting their land. It also connects with several dedicated Point Hope leaders who are still working to uncover what happened at Point Thompson.

"It's a story that’s presented from the Inupiaq perspective, number one," Harcharek said, "about a very, very critical time in our history. When we began taking a stand as to the influences that the outside had been bringing at that point for about a hundred years, and using the tools that we (had) at hand in order to shape our destiny. That story is very important as we move forward."

Emotionally difficult

There are two previous films in this series — The Duck In and The Voice of Our Spirit. Harcharek hopes that Project Chariot will be available for public viewing by the end of the year.

This film was definitely the most difficult to make, Edwardson wrote.

"Emotionally it has been the hardest thing I have ever had to do professionally," she wrote. "However, that is nothing compared with what the people in Point Hope have to go through every day and every month, wondering (if) much of this cancer (is) caused by something that can be fixed. Is it caused by actions taken by the government they consider themselves part of?"

Edwardson trusts in the wisdom of her community's elders and leaders as they seek closure on this subject, she wrote.

"I consider myself extremely blessed to be descended of such a community and of such a people as the Iñupiaq," Edwardson wrote. "I know they, and we, will find a way because we as a people are survivors. And because we must to ensure the future for our children is one that can build on understanding and healing, not pain and questions."