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

UPDATE: The debate about Arctic drilling heats up following a New Year's Eve oil-rig accident off the coast of Alaska.

The dusty Ford SUV bounces along a deserted road outside Caroline Cannon’s hometown of Point Hope, a desolate outpost on a narrow gravel spit extending off Alaska’s northwest shore. It’s early June, and the temperature here is a relatively balmy 40 degrees. Cannon is on her way to inspect the traditional ice cellar her family has maintained in the permafrost for generations. Global warming has caused some flooding problems of late for American Iñupiat Eskimo communities like Cannon’s, and with the bounty from this year’s whale hunt awaiting storage, she wants to make sure everything is in order. She reaches up to brush a strand of salt-and-pepper hair from her face and catches a whiff of mikigaq on her fingers. Cannon has been snacking on this Eskimo delicacy of whale meat fermented in blood since the town’s annual whaling festival began three days ago.

“Whew! Two thousand dollars’ worth of French perfume wouldn’t get rid of that smell,” she says, laughing, as she waves her fingers and crinkles her nose. “Noxzema is the only thing that does the trick.” 

This year the crews of Point Hope landed five bowhead whales, and nearly 300 tons of meat was carved into shares to be divvied among the community of some 800 residents, most of them Iñupiat. Another sizable portion of the hunt is set aside for everyone to enjoy during the festival and on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Far-flung relatives who had flown home for the feast arrived with empty coolers and Tupperware in anticipation of their shares. During the festival, even non-Iñupiat visitors are expected to accept generous helpings of the hunters’ potluck. “You have to collect your share anyway and then bless an elder with it if you don’t want it yourself,” explains Cannon, who is both the daughter and the granddaughter of whaling captains.

She pulls to a stop near a hatch in the ground, which she raises to reveal a cave-like abyss. A bum knee prevents her from climbing down the steep ladder for a serious look, but from what she can see, peering in, the ice cellar seems to be in good shape. Just being here puts her in a cheerful mood. With her family’s share of the fresh whale, plus the expected haul from an upcoming bearded-seal hunt, Cannon knows that they will be set for the hard winter to come.

Standing on spongy ground that is typically frozen for eight months a year, Cannon is startled when the vast, empty silence is broken by the sudden rustle of wings overhead. A flock of birds—maybe some sea ducks that have managed to avoid the big soup cauldrons at the whaling festival?—has taken flight. Cannon throws her head back to watch, crying out with glee, “That’s a blessing!”

That she would consider sacred the wildlife her people hunt—animals whose flesh she eats, whose fur she wears, whose delicately carved tusks dangle from her ears—is a concept difficult for outsiders to grasp. But the dominant theme of Point Hope’s whaling festival is gratitude, and the beast is thanked in sacred song, dance and prayer for sacrificing itself for the Iñupiat’s survival. Ultimately, they perceive the hunt as more a form of communion than of conquest.

Trying to convey that message, and the near-mystical bond between her people and the endangered 50-ton bowhead whales that migrate along the coastline, is a mission to which Cannon now devotes herself with urgent zeal.

Originally published in the November 2012 issue

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