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

AT THE WHALE HUNT this year, Cannon watched another generation of her family set out in a sealskin boat. Jalen, the 10-year-old grandson she adopted after his mother’s death, joined his brother-in-law’s crew; they landed a bowhead on the first day of the hunt. But the childhood Jalen enjoys is very different from Cannon’s. He’s been to Disneyland and, like other children, roars around Point Hope on an ATV. A few days before the festival, he fell from the back of a playmate’s vehicle and broke his leg. “He cries all night. I don’t like to see him getting so dependent on painkillers,” Cannon fretted. She had good reason to be protective: Addiction runs in the family. Cannon herself has battled alcohol and substance abuse and credits her Christian faith with the sobriety she has maintained for 18 years.

But at the June whaling festival, Cannon put her cares aside and took her place among a group of performers, singing songs of the hunt in her native tongue as dancers acted out the scenes. Jalen, munching Cheetos, watched his grandmother intently.

On the festival’s final day, villagers took their turns outdoors on the traditional blanket toss, whooping as they were flung into the air from sealskins stretched taut. There is ritual to the fun, with children going first and then the whaling crews, who are called forth man by man to be applauded by all. Next come mothers who gave birth to boys; they each climb on and toss gifts to the elders—Kit Kat bars and Dum Dum lollipops flying to the ground along with precious furs of Arctic fox, wolf and badger. Cannon had purchased a bagful of goodies, which she quietly gave to an impoverished new mother for her ritual jump. It had been years since Cannon herself had taken a turn. The blanket toss both thrills and frightens her. But she couldn’t bear the sight of Jalen, watching from the sidelines, missing out on the honor of his first toss.

“Should I do it for him?” she wondered aloud.

“I was on the blanket toss once when my son was born,” offered her friend Elizabeth. “I had to. Never again!”

Cannon thought of her bad knee and the surgery her doctor had told her to stop putting off. Then she thought of the ancient ritual her grandson was about to be denied. Throwing away caution and maybe reason, she stepped forward to take her triumphant leap.

TAMARA JONES has reported on Michelle Obama’s mentoring program for More.

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Originally published in the November 2012 issue

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