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For the sake of the Inupiat, Shell should give up drilling in the Arctic

Inupiaq people, who have inhabited the uppermost one-third of the state of Alaska, known as the Arctic, for millennia, are part of a larger circumpolar indigenous Inuit nation. The current population of the Inupiat in Alaska is about 13,500 (source: University of Alaska Fairbanks). Point Hope is the longest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent, the second largest village with a population of 800 inhabitants and the most culturally traditional village on the North Slope of Alaska.

The American government estimated the risk of an oil spill 1,000 barrels or larger happening in the next 77 years at 75 percent in one offshore Arctic oil production scenario. A spill in the Arctic environment cannot be cleaned up and would mean the end of the harvest of marine mammals by Inupiaq Eskimos. The Inupiat cannot survive in the Arctic without their traditional harvest. Seventy-five percent! Would you take a risk at 75 percent knowing that you might have to leave your homeland?

This is when there is an oil spill. What about the activity around oil exploration: the seismic, the drilling noise, the shipping traffic? Shell itself estimated in one of its last environmental permit applications that exploratory drilling activity will harass 13 percent of the endangered species of bowhead whales, gray whales and ringed seals. The U.S. government has given Shell this permit for the "non-lethal taking of whales and seals." Which means that these animals would not directly die of the harassment, but might still die because they have been exposed to noise that could, for example, deafen whales (leading to their imminent death) or change their migration route, chase them from their foraging grounds, disturb the plankton (their primary food supply) or affect their reproduction. And we are only talking about whales now. Oil exploration will also impact seals, walruses, fish, beluga whales and polar bears. All of these animals are an essential part of the food supplied by the Inupiaq ocean garden -- a garden that Inupiaq people have treasured and governed carefully and respectfully for thousands of years.

From the drilling site the currents go straight by the beach of Point Hope. Any spill will wash up on this pristine beach. This beach is not a nice sand beach that can be scraped off; it is a pebble beach, and all of the oil will sink in. Game from the ocean is dragged onto the beaches and slaughtered on the spot. Even if game is not affected by the oil, bringing it onto a contaminated shore spreads the contamination into the human food supply. Traditional food from the ocean and the land provide the Inupiat with all the nutrition they need. For example, whale blubber and whale skin, eaten as muktuk, is full of vitamin C and D. Replacing a Native diet with Western food requires vegetables and fruit. All food has to be flown into the villages, and fresh food especially is extremely expensive. What is the U.S. government going to do when the Inupiat can't live off the land and the ocean anymore? Set up a relief food supply to feed all the villagers?

Native food is more than healthy nutrition. It is a way of life. It is an essential part of the Inupiaq's identity. It not only feeds the body, it feeds the spirit. Take that away and you cut the heart out of the Inupiat culture.

After seven years of legal battles, the Native Village of Point Hope pulled out of the court case in the spring of 2015. The majority of the people now feel that it is useless to fight. Drilling will happen anyway. And if they don't hop on that boat they might be left with nothing. Shell is promising jobs and infrastructure. Shell is offering grants and scholarships.

"Shell is committed to being a good neighbor, minimizing the social and environmental impacts of our activities and delivering benefits for Alaskans," as they state in a leaflet left in the village of Point Hope. Well, everybody will need a good job if they are to afford a $10 bell pepper.

I sincerely ask that Shell reconsider drilling in the Arctic, which will endanger the traditional food supply, the environment and culture of the Inupiat. I strongly urge any good neighbor to not expose people to these enormous risks to a sustainable future.

I question the right of the U.S. government to sell leases and give out permits that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the food supply and the traditional way of living of the Inupiat. I urge the U.S. government to respect and protect the Inupiat as an indigenous people who have lived in the Arctic since before the Christian calendar started. In a world that is moving fast toward renewable energy, let not the last of the oil be the last of the Inupiaq culture.

Othniel Art Oomittuk Jr. is an Inupiaq Eskimo artist born and raised in the village of Point Hope. Point Hope lies on a land spit in the Chukchi Sea, approximately 70 miles from where Shell is planning to drill.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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