Campbell: Alaska Natives support drilling
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APRIL 25, 2001

Making his own case for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development, the Senate's only American Indian on Tuesday said Alaska Natives support drilling in the legislatively protected North Slope.

"From the Native Alaskan standpoint, the Alaska Federation of Natives supports drilling in that small area of ANWR," said Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) at a budget hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations.

"The only village in the area also supports it," Campbell added, referring to the Arctic village of Kaktovik, the Inupiat Eskimo community that has welcomed drilling.

Campbell's statements, however, came as a surprise to Faith Gemmill, a coordinator for the Gwich'in Nation. The Gwich'in Nation opposes drilling for fear it will destroy the Porcupine caribou herd, a central part of Gwich'in culture and society.

A number of Gwich'in villages are, in fact, located within ANWR, said Gemmill. The villages are outside the disputed "1002" area of ANWR which is said to hold vast oil riches.

But it was another one of Campbell's arguments in support of drilling which angered Gemmill the most.

"The only Native Alaskans I can find that are really opposed [to drilling] are the Gwich'ins, most of who [sic] are Canadian citizens, not American citizens," asserted Campbell.

Gemmill was appalled. "Its kind of ignorant [for Campbell] to make that comment when he's never come up and spoken to our people about it," she said. "There's seven Gwich'in villages in Alaska."

There are about 10,000 members of the Gwich'in Nation, said Gemmill. About half live in Alaska and the other half live in Canada, she said.

Nevertheless, Gemmill discounted the idea that Gwich'in opposition should be discounted because the political border between the United States and Canada has arbitrarily split the tribe.

"We have the same traditions, we have the same language, we have the same culture," said Gemmill. "Is it [Campbell's] position to have development projects that impact indigenous people as long as they're not in America?"

Campbell's push for drilling wasn't entirely based on his claim of Native support, though. He said the nation is facing an energy crisis and needs the oil which might be found in ANWR.

"We're dependent on OPEC and we're giving money now to Saddam Hussein who is shipping more oil over here than he did before the war," said Campbell. "He's rearming with the American money we are giving him that someday may be buying arms that are going to kill more Americans."

"We ought to have enough sense to get away from that," he continued. "We can't if we're not going to use the energy in this country."

Gemmill didn't buy Campbell's argument.

"What this country needs and what Campbell should promote are renewable energy sources and less dependence on fossil fuels," she said. "That, in the long run, will lessen our dependence on foreign oil."

John Tetpon, public relations coordinator for the Alaska Federation of Natives, said the organization has "consistently passed resolutions at our conventions that support environmentally sound development" in the refuge. The Federation represents most Alaska Native villages, 13 regional Alaska Native corporations, and 12 regional non-profit Alaska Native organizations, he said.

The last year which Tetpon could recall passage of a drilling resolution was 1995. Tetpon said the Federation hasn't changed its position since.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest and oldest American Indian and Alaska Native organization, opposes drilling.

Campbell's spokespersons were unavailable for comment. In February, he angered a number of American Indians when he unexpectedly cut short his appearance on Native America Calling, a nationally broadcast radio program.

Relevant Links:
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
Alaska Federation of Natives -
Oil Issues in ANWR, US Fish and Wildlife -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site -

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