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

A stout, bossy cheerleader of a woman given to spontaneous hugs and deep explosions of laughter, Cannon drives back toward town after her visit to the ice cellar. AWL’s environmental-justice program director, Betsy Beardsley, who lives in Anchorage and has become a close friend, rides along with her husband, Tyler, and their two young daughters. On the way home, Cannon spots a nephew—or possibly great-nephew or second cousin, given the wide-ranging and ever-shifting Iñupiat definitions of family—learning to ride a bicycle. She slams on the brakes and jumps out of the car to applaud and shout encouragement. Another mile down the road she sees Richard, her husband of 19 years, driving hismunicipal sanitation truck. He pulls up alongside, and Cannon rolls down her window. “How’re your brakes?” he wants to know. “Same,” Cannon reports, then laughs.

“Don’t tell them!” she shrieks, nodding toward Beardsley and her family in the backseat. Richard, an African American from San Francisco who is one of the few nonnatives in town, just shakes his head and smiles, accustomed to his wife’s penchant for hitting the gas pedal and letting fate decide the rest.

But fixing a car—or anything else—is no simple matter in this brutal terrain. There is no mechanic in town, so people do their own work, and if parts aren’t on hand, they must be flown in. The other option is to wait for the delivery barges that can sail only during the summer. Because virtually everything in Point Hope is imported, the cost of living is astronomical; a box of breakfast cereal sells for about $12, and milk costs more than $8 a gallon. Even though the median household income is $76,000 (most local jobs are tied to the civic payroll, government grants or subsidized projects), the money goes quickly. And unemployment in the North Slope runs as high as 25 percent. So home kitchens tend to be stocked with meat, fish and berries that family members have hunted and gathered themselves.

“I’ll take a nice polar bear steak over a New York strip any day,” says Cannon. And in recent years she’s eaten both, commuting frequently from the harsh tundra of America’s rooftop to the marbled floors of its Capitol, testifying before Congress, meeting with oil-industry representatives and strategizing with her environmentalist allies, scarcely pausing to regroup even as she was hit with a chain of family crises, including the fatal drug overdose of a grown daughter.

Outgoing as she is, Cannon was daunted at first by speaking before congressional leaders and audiences packed with environmental movers and shakers. “Of course I was nervous,” she recalls. But soon she was confident enough to buttonhole the interior secretary after a press conference in Anchorage and even to confront President Obama when she traveled to Washington for a conference of 400 federally recognized tribal nations in 2009.

The president appeared before the group for a town hall–style meeting, but when Cannon stepped up, she delivered more of a challenge than a question. “I came here with a message from my tribe,” she told Obama, “that we are impacted with the offshore drilling, the decision that’s been made on [our] behalf . . . during the Bush administration. And we would like you to overturn that.”

“Caroline said she would hold him accountable,” remembers Beardsley. “And then she said, ‘My son told me if I met you, I needed to ask you to give me a hug.’ And he did.” Beardsley was thrilled that Cannon spoke up. “Voices like Caroline’s were essential in showing decision makers how drilling would impact the Arctic,” she says.

Originally published in the November 2012 issue

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