North Star: Anti-Drilling Activist Caroline Cannon

Caroline Cannon is at the center of a big drama playing out in a tiny Alaskan whaling village some 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. As the pristine waters there are declared fair game for offshore drilling, this controversial activist is taking on Big Oil in a fight to preserve her native heritage and prevent what some fear could be an ecological disaster even worse than the Deepwater Horizon spill

By Tamara Jones
CANNON in the traditional patchwork-fur parka she wore to receive her Goldman Environmental Prize. The Iñupiat have fished and hunted in the Alaskan Arctic region for millennia.
Photograph: Rena Effendi

Never has this 56-year-old American—mother to nine children, grandmother to 24—felt that connection with her culture more intensely than in this moment, when corporate, geopolitical, economic and natural forces are threatening a way of life that has endured for millennia. “The ocean is our garden,” she likes to say. But now the same waters that nurture Cannon’s community and the other native villages in the region could prove of vital importance to sustaining the rest of the United States as well—because according to federal-government estimates, some 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath the Arctic’s seafloor, a cache believed to be one of the largest remaining reserves in the country.

This immense underwater frontier was opened to offshore drilling in 2011, when the Obama administration gave its consent to a Bush-era plan allowing Shell Oil to bore test wells in the shallow Chukchi and Beaufort sea waters where the Iñupiat of Alaska’s North Slope Borough hunt. The initial five-year lease option does not permit the extraction of any oil discovered. That step will face its own regulatory, legal and political challenges.

Proponents of drilling welcome the move as a boost to the national economy and the beginnings of U.S. independence from foreign oil. But others argue that more American oil in the global market will not necessarily mean lower prices at home. And they fear an unprecedented ecological disaster should a spill occur in waters that are arguably too remote, too unpredictable and too choked with ice to permit effective cleanup or to prevent the oil from freezing into fast-moving globs that could migrate, then melt, spreading the damage. It’s a nightmare scenario the National Audubon Society has dubbed “Deepwater Horizon meets the Titanic.” For Cannon, it would amount to a fatal blow to the Iñupiat way of life.

Some of her earliest memories are of camping out on the ice during the whale hunt, helping her mother and other whaling wives cook and supply the crews as they pursued the bowhead. Growing up in this stark monochrome landscape, with temperatures that can plunge to 45 degrees below zero and winds that can reach 80 miles per hour, Cannon didn’t even see her first tree until age 13, when she was sent to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Alaska’s Inside Passage region because Point Hope had no high school. Life 1,300 miles away from home, Cannon says, gave her culture shock: “The food was different, we were different. I had never heard the sound of traffic before or sirens. I didn’t like being away. It was not who we are; it was who we were forced to be.” She feels the same combination of fear, indignation and foreboding now. What will happen, she wonders, if the recent whaling season turns out to have been the last?

LEGALLY, THE OIL COMPANIES don’t need the Iñupiat’s permission to drill: The tracts beneath the ocean fall under federal jurisdiction. Nonetheless, Cannon is determined to stop them. “The federal government says they own the sea,” she says indignantly. “But we feel we have rights, too.” A longtime community activist, Cannon shifted to the national stage in 2009 when, as president of her local tribal council, she began working with the D.C.-based Alaska Wilderness League (AWL) as the voice and face of her people in the environmental group’s fight to preserve the Arctic.

Originally published in the November 2012 issue

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