In the harsh Arctic environment on the north coast of Alaska, the Inupiat people depend on the seas for survival. The push to open up Arctic waters for oil and gas drilling threatens their very way of life. Point Hope, Alaska resident Caroline Cannon has been leading a struggle against this kind of development for years, and represented Point Hope in a federal lawsuit challenging the 2007-2012 offshore oil and gas development plan. The court ruled in 2009 that the proposed leases did not sufficiently consider the impacts to the region’s marine environment. Now, she's building opposition to the 2012-2017 federal plan that could allow Shell Oil to drill several exploration wells in the Chukchi Sea—and her efforts to stop oil and gas development have won her one of this year's Goldman Environmental Prizes.
The drilling plan you're fighting would begin this summer? Why do you think it's a bad idea?
There are plans to be drilling this summer. We are educating the world that you can't be drilling or shouldn't be drilling out in the Arctic Ocean.
The wind factor, the harsh environment that we live in—little is known scientifically how it operates. They have some data, but in reality, when the winds are gusting at 50-60 mph in the Arctic and swells going 16-20 footers. It's just not doable. We don't have the technology, if an oil spill occurs. For one thing we don't have the infrastructures, it's a different world.
Point Hope has only one airport strip and there are many times when you cannot land in the village—if there's a crosswind and if weather is a factor, no airlines will be able to land there. That's our only way of transportation.
Has President Obama recognized your struggle?
I was fortunate to attend two of the first tribal nations conferences that he gathered several years ago. I spoke of our concern about what's happening in our area, with both the ocean and the land. Particularly the ocean, which we have always referred to as our garden.
With high hopes, I brought that message, that we are a tribe of people that highly rely on the subsistence way of life.
And his statement was, I know how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen.
So that gave me hope. Apparently after several years, because of the pressure of the demand for oil and gas, apparently he has a different version now. But I still hold onto his statement.
Can you describe what Point Hope is like?
Our community consists of 700 people, we live in a historical place. To you, in the western world, it's considered a national park. You value these places. We have landmarks built 100 years ago, trail marks, we have graveyards that were built with whale bones. We have the permafrost, but with climate change, that's another issue.
They're sacred grounds and we still utilize them to this day. We've been there since day one. In the western world, when there's a historical site, it's a sacred ground that should not be touched.
We'd like to be who we are. We were created to be the people that would be able to live in the harsh Arctic environment. After the oil companies drill, we're going to still be there. And I'm hoping with no disturbance, I'm hoping and praying without an oil spill. It's not like the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. They're two different worlds. It's calm in the Gulf of Mexico. Our Arctic ocean is very different.
What do you think will happen to your community if a spill does occur?
It could be history—something my great grandchildren could read in the history books in the library, and that's what I'm trying to prevent.
And your way of life?
When you value tradition and how you're attached to land and ocean—it's very, very rare today. But if you have that strong attachment, you should be proud of who you are. It was a God-given gift. We're unique and different, created in his image.
We should be recognized. We would like to live a traditional culture life. We should be given that option.
Have you seen ice floe movements change in your lifetime because of climate change?
I'm really excited right now because just before this interview, I received a phone call from my sister-in-law and she said, "our tent is up." And I got so excited because the last several years, we have not been able to pitch our tent because of the condition of the ice.
Point Hope, Alaska
Can you talk about the economic argument used to support drilling? What are your thoughts on the suggestion that it benefits nearby communities?
Look at Prudhoe Bay. It benefits some people and some communities, but overall it eventually runs out. That was something one of our elders said. It's not going to be there forever, it's only a temporary fix.
And now, how our people become so dependent on things that are so westernized that make life easy—but look at it from the other perspective, how helpful we were when we had to do the hard work. When we had to haul in the snow, haul in the ice, and get the wood to warm up the house. The physical activity that we did—I know I was 100 pounds less back in the day. Life is so comfortable now, but in order to survive, we have to do a lot of physical work.
So I know they're saying, you're going to be comfortable, and this is the plan, you cannot live without it. They're portraying a picture that without it, we're not going to survive. And that we're going to be nonexistent. But we've always been survivors. That's why we're the Inupiat, we're the real people of the north. Regardless of the challenges we face, we have always found a way to survive.
What do you do when you're not fighting Arctic drilling?
Public service is a lot of my time. We have a food bank that I'm involved in with my husband. There's homeless people. It's heartbreaking that our people are moving in that direction. We might be a small community, but there's needs out there. We're no different from anyplace in the nation.