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.
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.
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.
That same year, the drilling opponents scored their biggest win: A federal court ruled that further studies needed to be done on the potential impact of oil exploration on the marine environment. In 2010 the British Petroleum oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico provoked a federal moratorium on offshore drilling, and Cannon hoped the Alaskan Arctic would remain permanently off-limits. But not everyone in her state—or even her town—shared that dream. Alaska is hugely dependent on oil revenue; the state issues an annual oil-dividend check (averaging $1,485 a year over the past decade) to every resident and collects no income tax. Alaska sued to have the moratorium overturned; the ban was lifted in October 2010, but a series of permit and regulatory hurdles effectively stalled Shell until this past summer, when the company got permission to proceed.
But federal approval did not come without serious reservations. A June 2011 report by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that “many of the challenges emerging in Arctic oil and gas development decision-making are beyond the ability of science alone to resolve.” And even if Shell is capable of containing and cleaning up an Arctic spill, it could be defeated by the logistics of merely bringing the necessary equipment to a disaster site if conditions of heavy ice, fog, wind and total winter darkness prevail. How will Shell muster the necessary technology, Cannon asks, when sometimes “even medevacs can’t reach us”? In her view, the Iñupiat cannot afford to roll the dice and hope for the best.
“I am haunted by the worry that an oil spill will occur in our waters,” she told a House subcommittee in 2011. “The animals would either disappear or be so contaminated that my children or grandchildren would be forced to decide which is less harmful to them: contaminated whale meat or processed food shipped up from someplace like Costco . . . I know that genocide is a harsh word, but that’s what it would be.”
As Cannon stood outside her ice cellar earlier this year, Beardsley videotaped a new public service appeal. Cannon gazed solemnly into the camera and lamented Obama’s ultimate decision in Shell’s favor: “It hardens my heart and makes me sad to know he agreed.”
In recognition of her determination, Cannon was awarded a prestigious $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for activism last April. She wore a traditional patchwork-fur parka to the San Francisco ceremony and enthralled the crowd with the story of her father’s dying wish.
Nine years ago, she told them, Henry Nashookpuk, critically ill and physically spent, longed to be present at one more whale hunt. “As brittle and fragile as he was from the cancer, weighing only 90 pounds,” Cannon recounted, “he wanted to join my brother’s crew one last time. Of course, my reaction was no.”
But her father would not be dissuaded. So as the icebergs melted in the Arctic that spring and the graceful whales reappeared along the coast, Nashookpuk’s grown children carried him, in a sled lined with animal pelts and pulled by snowmobile, to the frozen shore of the Chukchi Sea.
Once at the water’s edge, the old whaling captain sipped a cup of tea while he gazed across a horizon as formidable as it was familiar. He murmured something Cannon couldn’t hear, finished his tea and then said simply, “I’m ready.” He died a month later.
Cannon still chokes up at the memory, unable to find the words to describe the bond between her people and the sea. “It’s not something you can explain,” she says. “It’s something you just have to feel.”
Mining the Arctic could generate $167 billion in federal revenue and create an average of 54,700 jobs a year through 2057. But whether much prosperity will trickle down to Cannon’s hometown is a question no one can yet answer. Jobs created by extracting offshore oil would be years away and for the most part filled by nonnatives with the specialized skills needed for the operation. But even anti-drilling crusaders like Cannon readily agree that the state of Alaska would not be able to provide the infrastructure of schools, roads, sewer systems and public services in the North Slope without the money generated by oil. Still, dissatisfaction over that dependence runs deep in the hearts of people proud of their ability to survive for thousands of years amid some of nature’s harshest challenges. When oil companies send crates of fresh apples, oranges and watermelon to Point Hope as gifts during the whale festival, Cannon forbids her children and grandchildren to eat any.
Point Hope was instrumental in rallying other native communities to fight against drilling, says Beardsley. Cannon has added declarations of support to lawsuits filed by a coalition of villages and environmental groups arguing that there is no proven technology to contain or clean up an oil spill in Arctic conditions. But when Shell agreed to concessions, including a moratorium on drilling during the whale hunt and some $5 million for environmental studies and monitoring (with local advisers hired to help), various groups—including the North Slope county government and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission—dropped their opposition. But not the tribal community of Point Hope. “I’m not convinced,” says Cannon, noting that even without a spill, the marine life could be driven away. “The noises and vibrations could change the pattern of migration.”
Eco-journalist Bob Reiss, author of The Eskimo and the Oil Man, believes the mistrust runs deeper in Cannon’s community, and the resistance stronger, for historic reasons: In 1958 the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission decided to demonstrate peacetime use of nuclear devices by creating an instant deepwater harbor about 30 miles from Point Hope. Had the plan come off, it would have detonated half a dozen underwater nuclear bombs. Iñupiat opposition blocked Project Chariot, but government scientists had already sprinkled radioactive soil around the area as part of their impact testing. “They were lied to from A to Z, and it was terrible,” Reiss says. Suspicion that the soil made its way into the food chain and was linked to a cluster of stomach cancers in Point Hope is what initially ignited Cannon’s passion for advocacy.
“It was the women who should be credited with winning the fight against Project Chariot,” says Point Hope mayor Steve Oomittuk. “The men are quiet. That’s how we’re brought up, to sit on the ice and be quiet”—so the whales will surface.
Shell headquarters in Houston responded to interview requests for this article by referring More to the press releases on its website, and to Shell officials in Alaska, who never replied. In June, company president Marvin E. Odum told Platts Energy Week TV that Shell would perform tests until it was “absolutely sure” it could safely contain an Arctic spill. As the first of Shell’s drillships headed north this past August to begin sinking the exploratory wells, Cannon fell into a funk. Her voice on the phone sounded flat and weary. “It takes a toll on you,” she said. “After you repeat yourself 10 times, what’s the use?”
But as More went to press, encroaching ice floes, coupled with damage to a spill-containment dome during a safety test, forced Shell to forgo deep drilling for now. In a press statement, the company conceded that the dome had not met Shell’s “stringent acceptance standards” and said the work would resume in 2013.
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.
Don’t miss out on MORE great articles like this one. Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter!