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Should national policy address the impact of oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on indigenous Arctic youth?

June 28, 2019


Celine Steinbach

The prospect of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) raises concern that the industry will transform and harm the pristine Arctic ecosystem and its Indigenous inhabitants (Bourne). This research essay will try to address the question of how oil drilling might affect the Indigenous youths in the ANWR region. The two basic issues that need to be addressed by policy are the issue of identity and the issue of economic security of Indigenous youths.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is an area more than 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska, bordering on the Arctic and Canada (Comay 2). It is home to many species of land and marine mammals, fish and migratory bird species (Comay 2, 4, 7, Bourne, Huffman). It has also been the home to Indigenous peoples for thousands of years (Comay 20, Dinero). The sea is frozen most of the year. It has no commercial fishing and is home to many whales, seal, and walrus. The ANWR has no roads. It has an Inupiaq village of 250 inhabitants, Kaktovik, at the Beaufort Sea and a Gwich’in village of 152 inhabitants, the Arctic Village, at the South border. Based on pictures and reports, the landscape is grand. For anyone who values nature, this expanse of wilderness is invaluable from a spiritual point of view. It is also vital element from an environmental point of view (Comay 21, Bourne).

The ANWR has been protected by the National Wildlife Refuge System, founded by President Theodore Roosevelt, since 1960. It was also protected by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980 (Comay 9). The conflict over oil drilling seems to have started because, in section 1002 of that act, Congress deferred a decision about the future management of the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in recognition of the area’s potentially enormous oil and gas resources and its importance as wildlife habitat (Comay 2, 5, 9). This zone is called the 1002 area. In 2017, the US House of Representatives and Senate passed a provision to open the 1002 area to oil drilling (Comay 2). The legality of this provision is still debated (Huffman). The AWNR includes the Cariboo migration path between Alaska and Canada, which is protected by the Agreement Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, signed by Canada (Comay 8).

From a global point of view, preservation of the ANWR is an environmental goal, which will likely have a positive effect on the global environment (Huffman). There is great concern in the global community that oil drilling and industrialization of the Arctic will have harmful effects on the global environment, including harmful effects on global warming. The political debate is about whether the economic benefit outweighs the negative environmental and global impact (Huffman, Dale). Recent policy changes, which do not consider the needs of Indigenous youths, seem to favor oil exploration (Comay, Huffman).

From the perspective of the Indigenous population, the issue of oil exploration in the Arctic ANWR is complex (Comay 20, Dale 373). The arguments for and against exploration as expressed by the Indigenous population should be evaluated to arrive at a policy that supports their autonomy. The identity of Indigenous Inuit in the North and the Gwich’in in the south of the ANWR is tied to their native land. This includes their culture, lifestyle and historical subsistence economy (Comay 8, 20). Oil exploration may be a threat to their land and to their historical identity, but it might also have positive outcomes (Dale 368, 371, Comay 20, Blum). The possible effects of oil exploration on Indigenous youths should be considered.

The Indigenous communities experienced a slow transformation since their initial exposure to Western influences through contact with traders and Christian missionaries. (Chance, Dinero) More recently, following United States statehood, the Prudhoe-Valdez oil exploration and Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and the Digital Revolution, they experienced rapid and harsh changes (Hamilton 271). Changes included the introduction of formal schools, housing, modern technologies, as well as the cash, and wage labor economy (Trout 4). Motorized boats, land vehicles and instruments, and powerful weapons revolutionized the subsistence practices of fishing and hunting (Chance, Dinero, Dale 371). Televisions and electronic media put them in constant awareness of a global community to which they belong, even though they are separated by distance and culture (Trout, Dinero).

Indigenous Arctic youths have been experiencing a great deal of stress (Trout 4, Ford 1). Signs of severe stress, including suicide, have been seen and this causes great concern to the Indigenous people (Hersher, Allen). Suicide rates among Indigenous youths, age 10 to 35, are two to three times greater than among all U.S. youths (Allen, NIH). The causes include the fast transformation of their society and their need to belong to two disparate worlds: the world of their historical ancestry and the world of the industrial global community, which includes the digital world shared by global youths (Trout 4, Dinero, Ford 1). Indigenous youths have to deal with the harsh geographic environment, and the physical demands of subsistence, which are unique to the Arctic (Chance, Dinero, Jacobson). At the same time, they have to participate in education and learn the skills of survival in the alien world of industrial globalization (Trout 7, 8). These demands are in conflict because each one demands the full time and attention of the growing youths (Trout 10). Youths often have to choose between the demands of family members who have opposite views. Some grandparents and some parents want them to learn the traditional survival and subsistence skills in nature, including hunting and fishing. Some parents or siblings may want them to put all their attention to succeeding in school and going on to higher education away from home. The youths may feel torn between family members and between two conflicting worlds (Trout 11). If they choose to stay in their home villages, they will have to get the skills and get the financial support to bridge the two disparate worlds (Trout 14, 16). They should not have to be torn between two conflicting worlds.

The main Indigenous villages in the ANWR are the Inuit village of Kaktovik in the North and the Gwich’in Arctic Village at the South (Chance, Jacobson 8, Comay 20). The Gwich’in people have a history of semi-nomadic subsistence life style (Dinero). They are still adjusting to a stationary village life. The village has a population grew rapidly to about 100 from 1940 to 1960, and recently grew to 152 villagers (Dinero). There are 36 occupied houses, an airport, school, health clinic, community hall, chapel, store, post office, and water plant. Water is obtained by container from a central water tank, but there is running water in the school and in the health clinic. There are no paved roads or a sewer system. According to research interviews and surveys, almost all of the Arctic Village households pursue some forms of subsistence activities, including hunting and fishing. 46% also have a wage earning employment (Dinero). Overall, 49% of the food is purchased in the store. The school teachers are mostly not Gwich’in. There are no doctors, certified nurses, policemen, or sanitation workers. Inhabitants fly to Fairbanks for health care. Most villagers are interested in having better education, health care, and basic village infrastructure. They need skilled services to repair houses, motorized vehicles and equipment, which often remain non-functional when broken. They are partly dependent on financial support from outside the village. My impression is that the population of 152 people, who are part-time involved in subsistence living, are not able to perform all the basic services that are available in large urban communities because they are separated from the industrial world except by airplane. They will need funding from outside the village to finance the technological developments within the village. These would be very expensive and would require policies to direct funding to the village. The policies should make it possible for the youths to stay in their villages.

Even though the Arctic Village villagers desire modern technology and services, they express a will, spirit and determination to be autonomous and self-sufficient and to be rooted in their land and their culture (Dinero). They took control of their 1.8 million acre reservation from the Federal government. They wrote “Cultural Policy and Community Value Statements,” saying that they believe in self-regulation and self-determination. They teach a “do it yourself” lifestyle. Their plans include a stable cash economy and stable wage labor positions. They are suspicious and distrustful of outside influences and fear that their destiny is dictated by outside government agencies (Dinero). Public policy should make it possible for youths to have a meaningful employment in the village and feel that they have control over their future.

What is the solution for a village that cannot support itself financially? There is no easy answer. Closing the village and migrating to urban communities would not be a good solution because many Arctic youths already fear that their culture and identity are dying and they are experiencing the sense of “mourning” (Trout 7, 8, 15). The Inuit people in small Arctic villages in Greenland had a similar situation. Their government decided that small villages like Kangeq were not practical to maintain and moved the villagers to tenement buildings in a big town. This resulted in tragic consequences and also resulted in the loss of Indigenous presence in the ancestral land (Hersher, Harmsen). Oil drilling in the Arctic might provide financial support to fund the villages and make it possible for the villagers to stay (Dale). Dale and others suggests that Indigenous communities can “derive a sense of ontological security via the Arctic petroleum industry.” By ontological security Dale means “the confidence most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments” including their “sense of place” (Dale 368).

The two basic issues that need to be addressed by policy are the issue of identity and the issue of economic security of Indigenous youths (Trout 7, Dale). The individual and cultural identity of Indigenous youths is tied to the land of their ancestors and could probably benefit from preservation of the ANWR (Dale). They would also benefit from policies that protect their cultural and political autonomy. The issue of economic survival might be solved by participating in the oil industry (Dale 368, 373, 375). Oil exploration in the ANWR might satisfy the economic needs of Indigenous Arctic youths and make it possible for them to assimilate within the global economy and lifestyle (Blum, Dale 368). The problem is that oil exploration in the ANWR could be harmful to their sense of identity (Trout 8, Dale, Scruggs). Public policy should aim to foster the identity, autonomy and financial security of Indigenous youths without harming their habitat. It should promote autonomous choices of lifestyle and meaningful employment. It should also help the youths to develop their identity as autonomous members of Indigenous culture and autonomous members of the global community. Policy development should require participation of Indigenous youths.

Maintaining small villages in the Arctic with 21st century standards of living, including education, social welfare and healthcare is extremely costly on a per person basis (Dale). However, there is an enormous social and environmental reward in maintaining a pristine landscape together with its ancestral caretakers (Bourne, Huffman). The total cost to the global community is minimal. Fortunately, the Indigenous people of the Alaskan Arctic also have access to natural resources (Dale). The question from the national perspective is whether the funds should come from oil drilling in the Arctic region of the ANWR, from drilling elsewhere in Alaska (Dale) or the United States, or from other sources. National policy should aim to find a compromise that will provide for the identity and financial needs of the Indigenous people and also protect their ancestral habitat and the ANWR. Policy plans should also include the voice of the Indigenous Arctic inhabitants around the Globe. Policy could try to develop Indigenous land resources in non-protected areas and distribute the financial rewards to all Indigenous Arctic areas. Another option is to use profits from the oil industry in other areas of the USA or from other areas of Alaska in order to protect the ANWR and to support economic infrastructure of the Indigenous people. Another alternative is to exact a global price for protection of wildlife refuges and to protect the arctic.


Works Cited

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