Her father was a Point Hope whaling captain. Her mother taught her how to butcher the bowhead and care for the meat. The family depended on the sea and land for so much.
Caroline Cannon's lifelong connection to the Arctic Ocean pushed her to become one of the state's most vocal opponents of offshore oil drilling.
Now, just as Shell Oil is poised to drill exploration wells off Alaska's northern coast, her advocacy has won her a coveted environmental award.
Cannon, an Inupiat mother of nine and grandmother of 26, is one of this year's winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, described as the world's biggest for grassroots environmentalists.
Cannon and the other five winners from around the world were officially announced Monday. Each will receive $150,000.
Cannon is the former president of the Native Village of Point Hope, the tribal council that has been involved in a number of lawsuits aimed at stopping oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic. She lost her spot on the village council in a close election last year but expects to get back on soon.
Point Hope, a village of about 700 people, is 330 miles southwest of Barrow on a gravel spit that forms the western-most extension of the northwest Alaska coast. The village is one of the oldest continuously occupied Inupiat areas in Alaska, according to the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs.
Cannon has spoken up against offshore drilling countless times. At a national tribal summit with President Barack Obama in 2009, she told him "we are not prepared for this." She has sat down with environmental leaders and with Shell. She's traded barbs with Pete Slaiby, Shell's vice president for Alaska operations, and didn't quiet down after he corrected some of her assertions in a letter to the editor.
"When you have something you feel strongly about, there's no turning that light off," Cannon said in an interview. "Meaning it's stronger than me."
She isn't convinced any oil company could clean up a spill in the Arctic.
"They can say they've got it down pat. They've got the response. They have all means. Their ships will be there. They have the people trained," Cannon said, repeating what she and other villagers have been told. But the nearest Coast Guard station is maybe 1,000 miles away. The weather can turn fierce fast and prevent help from arriving. If oil spilled, it might not be cleaned up before freezeup. The traditional ways are too dear to lose, she said.
Federal regulators have approved Shell's oil spill response plans for both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Shell hopes to drill exploratory wells in both locations during this summer's open water season using separate drilling rigs accompanied by more than a dozen other vessels that could respond in the event of a spill. The company says it is using the most advanced equipment and has invested billions in its Alaska offshore program. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in February that Shell will be operating under "the strongest oversight, safety requirements, and emergency response plans ever established."
Shell declined to comment on Cannon or the recognition she's receiving.
Court challenges by the Point Hope tribe and numerous environmental groups including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Alaska Wilderness League had stalled its efforts for years.
Cannon said her parents, Henry and Emma Nashookpuk, had a dog team that hunters used to get to caribou grounds and down to the sea ice for seals. Harvested seals were preserved in the snow head down -- life-saving food for villagers and dogs, she said.
One rare year when Point Hope whaling crews didn't land a whale, a friend in Barrow gave her muktuk that she shared with elders. "One elderly woman literally cried because that was so precious. That is who we are. That little block of muktuk that we brought to her," Cannon said.
Villagers call the ocean "our garden and our identity," Cannon said.
Betsy Beardsley, environmental justice director for the Alaska Wilderness League, said Cannon is a powerful speaker.
"She just has a way of painting a picture of life in the Arctic and what's at stake," said Beardsley, who planned to be in San Francisco for Monday's award ceremony. "Many times people are left in tears."
Even if Shell is able to drill this summer, Cannon's advocacy has made a difference, Beardsley said.
Villagers are not united against oil drilling. Some see the prospect of jobs and want to give Shell a chance. Still many appreciate Cannon for being well informed, and willing to stand up to the oil company, said Peggy Frankson, the tribal council executive director.
"Shell tries to come here with all the answers but Caroline as well as others, they ask the tough questions they can't answer," Frankson said.
This is the 23rd year for the Goldman prize. An international jury picks the winners from nominees submitted by environmental groups and activists. The nomination process is confidential, and vetting the candidates takes months.
The other 2012 winners are: a woman from Kenya fighting a massive dam, a Russian trying to reroute a highway that would bisect a forest, a priest leading a movement against a nickel mine in the Philippines, a mother in Argentina whose infant died from pesticide poisoning organizing others against toxic agriculture chemicals, and an activist in China whose online database and map exposes factories that violate environmental regulations.
The late Richard Goldman and his wife, Rhoda, a Levi Strauss heiress, created the prize in 1990 to reward "ordinary individuals who take extraordinary actions to protect the earth and its inhabitants," their San Francisco-based foundation says.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing