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Photos: Life in the Alaska village of Kaktovik

Children celebrate the first successful whale hunt of the year atop a 44' Bowhead whale in Kaktovik on September 5, 2012.
Courtesy Dania Moss
Kaktovik residents begin butchering a 44' Bowhead whale on September 5, 2012.
Courtesy Dania Moss
Charles Brower, Jr helps butcher Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Women cut muktuk, or whale skin and blubber, for a feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Family and community members gather at the house of Joe Kaleak for a feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Joe Kaleak, Sr fixes a harpoon at his house. His son George Kaleak, Sr. caught the first whale of the year the day before. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Isabel Kanayurak serves whale meat at a feast celebrating the first whale of the year in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Children play with an iPad at the feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Eddie Rexford pauses while butchering a Bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears approach Karl Brower as he butchers a whale on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears play on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kaktovik residents butcher a whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Eddie Rexford butchering a bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
From left, Eddie Rexford, Karl Brower, and Jonas Mackenzie butcher a bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kaktovik residents butcher and distribute meat from a 44' bowhead whale, the first harvest of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears chase off a dog that escaped from its owner in Kaktovik. The village has one of the largest concentrations of polar bears in the world. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Sims store is one of three small stores in Kaktovik, offering an array of canned and frozen foods, but hardly any fresh items, and what they do offer is very expensive. September 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Kaktovik, on Alaska's North Slope, is the only permanent settlement in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's special 1002 area, where there is great oil and gas potential. September 10, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Rev. Mary Ann Warden, second from right, leads her congregation in worship at the Kaktovik Presbyterian Church. They sing in both English and Inupiaq. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Issac Akootchook, 90 years old, walks home after church in Kaktovik. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A new subdivision on the outskirts of Kaktovik looks into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 1002 coastal plain. September 10, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Shell and other oil companies are embarking on offshore oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic. Meantime, the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains off limits to oil drilling.
Aaron Jansen illustration
Loren Holmes

KAKTOVIK, Alaska -- In early September, a whaling crew in this village of 250 atop the North American continent killed a 44-foot-long bowhead. Villagers would spend the next several days divvying up the meat in an event that plays out each spring and fall in villages across Alaska's Arctic coastline.

"That's our garden," said James Lampe, watching the angry Beaufort Sea pounding the shores. "Pretty soon there'll be caribou, and we'll get caribou. But for now, it's whale time."

The bowhead whales that migrate past Kaktovik each autumn offer a critical, multi-ton source of protein. No roads lead in or out of the village, and unemployment is high. People can't afford to buy all of their food from the store, Lampe said. Not that there's much to buy. Shelves are mostly empty. Milk, fruit and vegetables come in cans.

It's no wonder then that it's hard to find anyone in Kaktovik who supports offshore oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea, which, along with the Chukchi Sea to the northwest of Alaska, make up a swath of U.S. waters in the Arctic Ocean.

The villagers' apprehension comes as Royal Dutch Shell's hunt for crude off their shores has produced a few jobs for locals and income for the village corporation.

Yet, in a paradox worthy of fiction, a 1.5-million-acre coastal swath of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains what may be the nation's last great hope for a giant, conventional oil discovery on land -- one that wouldn't require drill ships and undersea pipelines.

Drilling on ANWR's coastal plain wouldn't pose the risk of oily water lapping at the Arctic coastline, or killing whales, seals and walruses that the people of Kaktovik and other villagers depend on.

MORE: SPECIAL SERIES ON ARCTIC vs. ANWR