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Real threat to Alaska Native culture isn't oil development. It's a world without oil.

Craig Medred
Courtesy Lori Koutsky

OPINION: When it comes to oil in the north, the time has arrived for environmentalists and Alaska Natives themselves to face the fact the gasoline that fuels the internal combustion engine long ago corrupted traditional cultural practices.

That the descendants of the 49th state's aboriginal occupants have managed to hang onto and celebrate the vestiges of these traditions is a testament to Native leaders, but the sort of claim that follows here is pure nonsense: "On Alaska's Arctic coast, the Inupiat people practice the same cultural traditions that they have for thousands of years -- traditions that fuel their bodies, their spirits and their future."

Those are the words of Betsy Beardsley, director of the Environmental Justice Program at the Alaska Wilderness League, writing for Forbes magazine in an article entitled "The Case Against Drilling in Alaska's Arctic Waters."

There is a case to be made against drilling in Alaska's waters. This is not it. The "cultural traditions" of the Arctic coast today are as vested in modern petrochemicals as the traditions of any other American. 

Oil, simply put, powers the Inupiat. It's the lifeblood of vital food-gathering equipment: outboard motors, snowmachines and four-wheelers. Oil powers up the rotors on the North Slope Borough search-and-rescue helicopters that have saved many a lost hunter. Oil fuels the jets that deliver North Slope and Northwest residents to Alaska's capital in Juneau or the nation's capital in Washington, D.C., to lobby for coastal protection, marine mammal management, and environmental safeguards on drilling in the Arctic where, if the world was perfect, there would indeed be no drilling.

Perhaps if the world were perfect, there would be no more drilling for oil anywhere.

Oil is a nonrenewable resource. Humans have become addicted to it, and Americans are the worst addicts. Americans consume roughly 25 percent of the world's oil. Large parts of the rest of the modern world also guzzle oil as if there were no end while the third world struggles to be like us. The latter is only increasing demand on a limited resource.

Did crude save Alaska Native hunter-gatherer traditions?

We are going to move on to some other source of energy at some time. This is inevitable. The oil that flows from beneath the Arctic is destined to run out, or fall to some new and better technology, just like the oil that flowed from the whales of the Arctic. In the 1800s, whale oil was a commodity even more valuable than crude is today.

"At the height of the industry in 1856, sperm oil sold for $1.77 a gallon, and the United States was producing 4 to 5 million gallons of spermaceti and 6 to 10 million gallons of train oil annually," writes Michael Clark, a California petroleum geologist who has put together a history of the whaling industry and oil that makes a pretty strong case that oil saved the whales.

One can only guess what would have become of the Inupiat if a crude-based petrochemical business had never materialized, if a world economy in need of whale oil had gone on killing whales until there were none left to kill.

The Inupiat clung to their cultural traditions by hunting whales. It is a wonderful thing. It is their touchstone to the past. All peoples should be so lucky on a planet where most of us live lives more and more detached from the hunter-gatherers from which we sprang. The wilderness is our habitat every bit as much as the modern city. All of us have our roots in the wild. We should cherish them.

But let's not deceive ourselves or anyone else. Society as we know it at this moment needs oil. This is even more evident in remote, rural Alaska. What is left of cultural traditions everywhere are now fueled by oil. Oil in the outboard motors that drive the skin boats used to hunt the whales. Oil in the forklift that hoists the whale ashore. Oil in the four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles that bring villagers to the beach.

Some might wish it were otherwise. Alaska Native cultures were shaped by hard work and hardship. Oil has in some ways turned the culture soft. The culture today is not the culture of Sidney Huntington or the late Herbie Nayokpuk or the long-gone Howard Albert, a man who could walk for days in front of a dog team on snowshoes and do damn near anything with his hands and simple tools. He took his own life in 1983. In some ways, it might be said, he just couldn't adjust to the world in which we live today.

Oil fuels modern Alaska life -- even in Arctic

It is a world of oil and technology, and not just in the cities. Oil, I am sad to say as one who has worked to reduce the size of his carbon footprint, has made Alaska a better place.

There were, within the lifetimes of many of us, people in this state still cutting wood by hand to fuel the stove that provided their only warmth against the cold, Arctic night. It was in a pot upon that stove they melted ice to provide water for drinking and bathing. It was in cold cabins they rose every morning to light that stove, shivering as they did, to face another day.  

High prices have forced some Alaskans back to burning wood, but no one cuts it with a handsaw anymore. That is too much work. The gas-powered chainsaw is no longer a luxury. So too the gas-powered snowmachine to haul the wood home.

I have lived a little of the life of hauling wood and water. You have no idea how hard it is until you have done it. The luxuries of modern America -- centralized heating, running water, plumbing -- are so taken for granted by the people who stand for tens of minutes soaking up the simple pleasure of life beneath a hot shower. Few today have been forced to bathe from a bowl of water derived from ice melted on the stove. Few have made the run from cabin to outhouse at minus-50, or turned to the stinking honey bucket inside. 

You probably think the flu is something when it debilitates you so you can't go to work. Imagine what it's like when work is required not for income but for survival. Try forcing yourself out of bed sick to light that wood stove, because you have no choice but to light the stove or freeze to death. Try dragging yourself outside at 50 degrees below zero to get more firewood to feed the stove because that too is a necessity. These sorts of experiences will change your view on oil.

Oil fuels technological magic. There is no other description. Imagine the reaction of someone from 200 years ago if they came alive today to see the wizardry of this fuel in even its crudest uses.

A 55-gallon drum of oil propped up outside a tiny cabin feeds a stove for weeks without ever needing to refuel it. A 5-gallon can of gas poured into a snowmachine allows you to visit friends or relatives who live a two-day walk away. One can argue that Alaska Natives would be better off today if they still occasionally made the walk. Their culture was defined by this sort of toughness. But one cannot argue against the idea that their lives have been enriched by the opportunities to socialize without such hardship. 

One might even argue that traveling and socializing, fueled by oil, saved what remains of Alaska Native culture. Native leaders didn't fight to win passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act from isolated, far-flung villages 40 years ago. They got together to organize to do that, and then they flew to Washington, D.C., to lobby their cause. Oil made it all possible.

Hell, oil drove the show. The claims settlement, which awarded 44 million acres of land and nearly $1 billion to 12 Alaska Native regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations, was driven by the desire to settle land disputes in order to pave the way for construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. You could say that Native corporations, many of which are doing quite well today, were born of oil. Some, of course, complain those corporations aren't doing enough for "their people."

Tell that to the thousands of Alaska Natives who have found gainful employment working for the corporations.

Yes, they are imperfect. Everything is. The greatest failing of the corporations might be in something no one even talks about in this state: the brain drain from rural Alaska. But with that said, the corporations have helped a lot of smart kids make a life in the modern world, the world in which we all live. The world in which Beardsley and the Alaska Wilderness League lives.

Real threat to Alaska Native culture? Running out of oil.

It's easy for someone in that world to play on the emotions of people living out there in the vast beyond who fear change -- because we all fear change. We all desire the security and comfort of the known. Paradoxically, we all want a better life; we just don't want anything to change in the process.

That there are those in Arctic Alaska who don't want their lives disturbed by the disturbance of oil development is understandable. But what if the choice is that or no fuel for their homes, their four-wheelers, their snowmachines?

This is tribal desire up against national need, and we are all tribal. All of us -- white, black, Asian, Native and other. Our NIMBYism is tribalism in its simplest form. We don't want anybody messing with our neighborhood, and the hell with the big picture. But there is always a big picture, and in the big picture today, Alaskans need oil. Americans need oil. The world economy needs oil. The infrastructure on which we all depend today is powered by oil.

It's nice to fantasize about life without it, but it's hard to imagine what life in the Arctic would be if it were there no more. Damn few people out there are these days physically or emotionally equipped to survive without oil. It's about time everyone in Alaska faced this.

The real threat to Alaska Native cultures as they exist today is not oil development, but running out of oil. The Arctic has changed. The dog teams of old are nearly all gone. So are the people who could travel for days on snowshoes or foot. Society depends on the snowmachine, the four-wheeler, and the outboard-powered boat. They all run on gas. There are no electric or solar-powered options. And until there are -- or until motors that run on something other than gas become economic -- the Inupiat will remain every bit as dependent on oil as the rest of us; in many ways more so.

As an urban Alaskan, I have access to a lot of roads and trails on which I can ride my bicycle, which I do a lot. Have you ever tried riding a bike across the tundra? Even on the fattest of tires, it doesn't work. And in the winter, unless the snow conditions are just right, you need the old, packed track of a snowmachine on which to pedal. And the track of the snowmachine again depends on oil. 

Oil is something none of us can escape, at least for now.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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