Alaska: ANWR, Oil and the Natives
Winona LaDuke

Its fourteen years after the EXXON Valdez spill in Alaska. The oil industry still drives the state's politics and much of the environment.

Senator Frank Murkowski has just been elected governor, and he has appointed his daughter to fill out his term. Linda Murkowski is proposing a bill that would exempt most new oil exploitation from any environmental impact statements, and Prince William Sound is still not cleaned up.

Out of the 28 most impacted species by the spill, only two are on the recovery list. "It will be a long time till we know the damages to our way of life," explains Dune Lankard (of Eyak community of Cordova).

Lankard, Evon Peter, Chief of the Gwich'in Nation from Arctic Village and Violet Yeaton have joined with hundreds of other Native Alaskans to form the Alaskan Native Oil and Gas Working Group.

The communities and the activists are challenging the oil industry in Alaska, sort of the "sacred cow" of Alaskan politics, the source of state revenue, an individual check to Alaskans (which many refer to as "bribe or shush money"), and indeed the lunch money for most politicians--whether state or federal.

They are also challenging the activities of the Alaska Native Corporations, which the community members charge were created as tools to exploit the lands and resources of the Indigenous Peoples.

"Concerns over unsustainable oil and gas development with environmental and cultural impacts on Alaskan Natives," created the need for grassroots community groups to come together. This process was supported by international organizations like Project Underground and the Indigenous Environmental Network through the Indigenous Mining campaign.

Violet Yeaton is from Port Graham Village on Lower Cook Inlet. "Our traditional use in an uncontaminated state is crucial to the sustainability of our culture," she explains.

A 1997 EPA draft study documented heavy metal contaminants in the traditional resources. "Before the final report was completed, the EPA renewed permits for oil and gas development to the companies. It is unacceptable that Cook Inlet oil activities be allowed to continue based on exemptions from the law, exemptions that are illegal elsewhere. We require zero discharge," Yeaton says.

Chief Evon Peter from Arctic Village reiterated the concerns, and underscored the Gwich'in commitment to opposing oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Robert Thompason, an Inupiat from Kaktovik, comes from a village which has historically been involved in oil development. Acknowledging that many people are "in support of oil development in his area," he states, "The Porcupine Caribou Herd is in decline. There are no safeguards during the production stage of oil and gas. They are having problems without any development at this time and development will further damage this herd, it is my hope that the 7th generation will come to know our land and culture. In order for our culture to survive, we have to have the land." The debate over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been also used to pit Native communities against each other; with some communities like the Inuit communities hoping to avert more oil development in the off-shore region which impacts their traditional areas, and avoid that by having oil development in ANWR.

The oil interests, and subsequently state government have driven a wedge and a complex, largely untenable situation into the heart of Alaskan Native territory.

"The discovery of oil on the North Slope pushed Congress to enact the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 which took nearly all the land from Indigenous control and allowed the industry and state to gain access to the resources. It set up a tool to divide and exploit the Alaskan Indigenous Nations, their traditional lands and resources" explains Chief Evon Peter, of Arctic Village, one of many members of the working group.

Indeed oil drove the transformation of Alaska, and the creation of the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act, the law that largely separated Alaskan Natives from jurisdiction over their land. When Alaska entered the United States in 1959, approximately 85,000 Native people lived throughout the state.

The discovery of oil drove a federal mandate to redress aboriginal title questions in the region, and in particular find a tenable legal loophole through which to secure an 800 mile pipeline through the heart of Alaska from the North Slope to the oil companies. That legal loophole was the Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act.

In 1971, the government, with an estimated $562 million dollars dangled by oil companies, set out to address the problem of Alaskan Native jurisdiction.

As Clayton Thomas-Muller, of the Indigenous Environmental Network explains, "President Nixon convinced Wally Hickel to retire as Governor of Alaska in order to be immediately appointed as the new Secretary of Interior, making him instrumental in brokering the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA 1971).

"With the passage of the ANCSA legislation, all aboriginal land claims were extinguished. The law passed without a vote by Alaskan Native people, or the general public."

A newly imposed system was set up under which Native lands became owned by a for-profit corporate structure of Alaskan Native Corporations, and the people were made shareholders. Not so different than the "termination era" in the lower 48 states, which liquidated the assets of many Native communities. There is widespread concern that the law has wreaked social havoc on Alaskan Native communities.

Today, Alaskan Native Corporations like the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation hold land entitlements to 5.1 million acres of land, including some lands rich in oil and minerals. Although 9 percent of the jobs are held by shareholders, the corporation's interests and responsibilities now include business partners like BP Amoco, which created one of the region's largest crude oil spills, as well as some of their own spills, including a February 2002 spill of more than 4,000 gallons of oil.

Others like the Chugach Alaska Corporation control 93 million acres, Cook Inlet Regional Corporation, controls 2.4 million acres, and Nana Regional Corporation controls 2.25 million acres. Many of the corporations have entered into joint ventures or partnerships with mining and oil development companies, and have separate agreements that may affect the Native villages that exist within the corporate holdings.

Alaska, although stunning visually, remains amazingly polluted. It ranks number four of the most polluted states in the country, with over 535 million pounds of toxic releases into the environment in 2000 alone. One mine: the Red Dog Mine (within the Nana Regional corporation's territory) reported 450 million pounds of toxic releases in 2000, or about four-fifths of all reported toxic releases in the state.

There is a significant controversy about the mine's operations and it's pollution although there are many Native people employed at the mine.

The oil industry, like the military, has exemptions from reporting their toxic releases. The fact that exploration and production facilities (Prudoe Bay and Cook Inlet), pipelines (Trans Alaska Pipeline) and natural gas refineries (Phillips Petroleum at Nikiski) are exempted from TRI (Toxics Release Inventory reports) would, it seems, miss the point of having an inventory. In spite of that, in 2000, the industry reported releases of 265,000 pounds of toxics from the oil facilities.

That same year, there were 1,534 oil spills in the state reported to the Alaska DEC. That amounts to a reported release of 145,338 gallons of oil, or 30 oil spills a week, four a day. In 2001 one oil spill was caused when Daniel Carson Lewis, a 37 year old man, shot a hole in the Trans Alaska Pipeline, causing an estimated total of 6,800 barrels or 285,600 gallons to spill.

From 1994 to 1999, approximately 1,600 spills occurred involving more than 1.2 million gallons of oil, diesel fuel, acid, biocide, ethylene glycol, drilling fluid, produced water and other liquids according to one report. A study of diesel spills in Alaska's Arctic found that, after 28 years, substantial hydrocarbons remained in the soil and most of the vegetation in the area of the spills had not recovered.

Industry justifies the reporting exemption by saying that the facilities are located "too far from communities to have an impact." However, whether it is Violet Yeaton, Evon Peter, or Dune Lankard's communities, that exemption has proved problematic.

Dune Lankard's Indian name means "A Little Bird Who Screams Really Loud and Won't Shut Up." His concerns are not only levied at the big corporations like British Petroleum, EXXON and Chevron, he is also concerned about the Alaskan Native Corporations.

"The Chugach Alaska Corporation Region has decided it wants to drill for oil near Katalla, on the Copper River Delta and an ancestral village site of the Eyak. We've never been asked for our opinion. The Copper River Delta is home to the worlds' finest salmon and we do not want to lose this way of life. If the development happens at Katalla it will affect everything we know about the Copper River Delta."

The new coalition promises to not only challenge the major oil companies on their proposals for new Alaskan oil exploitation, the coalition promises to challenge Native corporations and the state of Alaska to look at diversifying the economy of the region, and addressing the pollutants now within the state. The challenge is immense.

A week of the Anchorage Daily News headlines speaks to the prominence of oil in Alaska. NPR-A (National Petroleum Reserve) Options on Table, "Audubon's Alternative; Compromise would allow oil and protect wildlife, group says." "BP (British Petroleum, now called Beyond Petroleum) takes $6.75 Billion Step into Russia," all blast from the pages of the Alaskan papers.

Clayton Thomas-Muller is rather sardonic when he looks at the headlines, "Did you know that British Petroleum, is now called Beyond Petroleum, and they spent more money on their name change than they spent on renewable energy in the past three years?"

Then there is the other seemingly inexplicable set of headlines in the same paper. "Alaskans Struggle to Cope with Bizarre Midwinter Thaw." The newspaper pretty much skirts the issues of global climate change, and the fact that temperatures have risen, ice is melting and whole forests are dying as a result of climate change issues, all associated with oil and gas development issues.

As it turns out, we've managed to increase the overall amount of carbon in the air by more in the past 200 years than in the previous million years or so, and the beginning of global climate change is just, according to experts, showing it's hand.

So far, arctic ice in the summer has decreased by 40 percent, sea level has risen by .2 meters overall, snow cover has decreased by 10 percent, 4.2 million acres of the forest in Alaska is dying because the spruce beetles now can reproduce twice as fast, with a longer season, (and devastate the forest), vector borne diseases (West Nile fever for example) are on the increase, and each year the record number of disasters attributed to climate change has increased dramatically.

Chief Evon Peter, Dune Lankard, Violet Yeaton and their colleagues are in for a long and pitched campaign to challenge the dominance of oil in Alaska.

A press conference reporter asks them somewhat incredulously if they oppose all oil development in Alaska. One of the panel members points out that it's "exploitation if you look at it the other way, and there have got to be some alternatives for the future."

© 2003 by Winona LaDuke, Ponsford, Minnesota

Native American Activist and Harvard graduate Winona LaDuke (Anishinabe) lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She is the program director for the Honor the Earth Fund and co-chairs the Indigenous Women's Network. LaDuke and Ralph Nader were the Green Party candidates in the 2000 presidential race.

This article was originally published in News From Indian Country April 7, 2003.