Alaska Natives square off over Arctic drilling
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MAY 18, 2001

The controversy over opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development hit Indian Country in a big way on Thursday, as two Alaska Natives representing opposite sides of the battle squared off against each other on national radio.

During a one-hour broadcast of Native America Calling, the two took turns accusing one another of cultural genocide and preventing each from exercising their rights, as Native peoples, to self-determination. The program highlighted the intense debate occurring nationally over drilling but also appeared to strike a chord among listeners and host Harlan McKosato, who promised a return to the hot topic.

Representing Arctic Slope Regional Corp. was Tara Sweeney, who in February promoted drilling at a press conference along with Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska.). The corporation, chartered under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, has about 8,000 Inupiat Eskimo shareholders.

"This is a matter of self-determination for the Inupiat people," said Sweeney. "Its a matter of providing safe healthy living conditions for our people and also providing our people with the opportunity to get an education to become productive members of our society."

Arctic Slope has mineral rights to 92,000 acres of land within ANWR's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, where the Bush administration has proposed development. Drilling could bring a financial windfall to shareholders but also to the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, in the form of jobs and other benefits.

The suggested positives have done little to sway the position of the Gwich'in Nation, who have opposed drilling for fear it will damage the caribou here on which they subsist. Faith Gemmill, representing the tribe's steering committee, characterized Arctic Slope's support for drilling as one based on greed.

"It seems that [Arctic Slope's] position is that it is alright to sacrifice the Gwich'in way of life for their economic needs when clearly [Arctic Slope] does have other financial opportunities," said Gemmill. "They are one of the wealthiest tribes in America."

For Sweeney and other Inupiat callers, however, the issue was more than monetary. Not only can development occur in an enviromentally sound way, they argued it will bring "massive social benefits" such as education, fire services, and infrastructure to the north slope.

"Its not only about the money, its what we do with that revenue," said Sweeney.

The debate was also haunted by a number of historical and factual disputes. Sweeney flatly denied the existence of any Gwich'in villages in ANWR, claiming the Inupiat as the sole occupiers of the 19 million-acre refuge,

Gemmill said there were two Gwich'in villages within ANWR's boundaries. US Fish and Wildlife, which manages ANWR, says the region is home to both peoples.

Other callers suggested the Gwich'in were hypocritical to oppose development since they had agreed to exploration on their own lands. After Sweeney accused the Gwich'in of not seeking to protect the "conveniently sacred" caribou in the 1980s, Gemmill said development was considered only because it wouldn't affect the herd.

Although the energy policy President Bush released yesterday calls for development in ANWR, exploration requires Congressional approval. The administration and supporters generally agree the votes do not currently exist to approve drilling.

Relevant Links:
Native America Calling -
Arctic Slope Regional Corp -
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
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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