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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 5, Sec 2.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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IX

The Movement of People and their Land Use.

THE EXTRACTION OF life-sustaining goods — which might be anything: timber, minerals, animal products, oil – depends today either on ownership of land or on the purchase of leasehold. As mentioned later, land since the federal Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, is shared in Alaska by separate Native, federal and state owners. Companies like Atlantic Richfield, Exxon, Standard Oil, Shell and BP wishing, for example, to pursue oil extraction, have to buy or lease land.

At the beginning of the first European trips to north America, things were experimental and unregulated.

At the beginning of the first European trips to north America, things were experimental and unregulated. When, for example, after a brief sojourn, the Norse finally abandoned Newfoundland in the eleventh century, they left, as the writer of Erik the Red’s Saga remarked, ‘a rich and fruitful land, but one we cannot safely inhabit.’1 Given already small home populations in Greenland and Iceland from where the early Viking adventurers had sailed, there had never been many of them at the one site known to have been settled: this was L’Anse aux Meadows (today’s name) on the north coast of Newfoundland, and the cargoes of butternuts and wild grapes, which gave rise to the name ‘Vinland’, were luxuries harvested in New England during summer trips from L’Anse.

Long term settlement, as the Sagas suggest, was never a Viking option. Space was plentiful, but eleventh-century Native people – ancestors of the Labrador Innu, Newfoundland Beothuk, the Micmac of Nova Scotia – already maintained land control within locally understood borders. Norsemen certainly made trading expeditions into the high Arctic to barter with indigenous (quasi-Inuit) ‘Dorset’ Natives. Later pre-Inuit Thule Eskimo arrivals would be travelling from Alaska and displacing the Dorset folk with whom Norse trading parties had had contact but among whom it was impossible to settle. As the author of the saga just quoted wrote, the settlement of small European groups would have been precarious and they probably wouldn’t have lasted.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration.

Still, it is fascinating to speculate on the lives and motivations of the early Norse explorers. Archaeologists have excavated relatively little of cultural significance — suggesting that the Norse, who had otherwise developed rich technological and aesthetic cultures, didn’t settle large numbers of people in North America. There were also very few women. Traces of Viking technology nonetheless endured. The Vikings built a long house at L’Anse, cut wood to transport to tree-challenged Greenland or to rebuild ships for the journey home, and they smelted local bog iron ore in subterranean kilns of medieval Norwegian origin for the manufacture of nails. In parallel, TAPS, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, conglomerated within Aleyaska, the controlling entity that incorporated the major TAPS oil companies, brought only a culture of extraction to the Great Land and left nothing but the pipeline and its dozen pump stations.

Innumerable publications detail post-1960 Viking-American data.2 But there are admittedly no cultural or historical connections between eleventh-century Viking iron workers and the makers of the steel-dependent Trans-Alaska pipeline on the other side of the continent two thousand years later. It is nonetheless interesting, as though looking down on the continent from an imaginary height, to view some of the uncannily similar ways in which both native people, Euro-Americans and Europeans have made use of land.

X Native Consumption Patterns

IT SHOULD BE acknowledged that American Natives have always made use of their home lands and their survival always depended on the animals, sea creatures and plants with which they shared territories. Everyone must eat to live and almost all co-resident creatures have been prey animals to Native Americans. Natives, in this sense, like any human beings who pursue their livelihood, have always made a living from their territorial assets.

There is, nonetheless, a significant difference between resource utilisation by Natives and Euro-Americans. Native peoples have traditionally shared their territories with co-residential creatures. Native hunters never displaced a prey object. On the contrary, the pursuit of animals is in itself a reason for remaining in home territory. A subsistence dependent Native group will not make its capture and travel off elsewhere. They will remain in order to repeat the experience.

This condition of residential/environmental balance, of long term subsistence-based residence, is categorically different from the Euro-American activity for the purpose of deferred, out of territory, consumption. The two approaches, even in the rare cases when the two societies are at least temporarily pursuing the same good – buffalo products, ivory, baleen, for example – are more than different. They are opposites.

The testimonies given in the following paragraphs eloquently express the life sustaining importance of Native connections to inherited land and locally consumed goods.

XI Alaska Native Testimonies on Land Issues Recorded by Thomas Berger3

THOMAS BERGER WAS the Canadian judge who headed the Alaska Native Review Commission which toured Alaskan villages between 1983 and 1985 to record testimonies about the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and issues arising from commercial exploration, oil in particular.

We live off the land and this is our garden,’ as one Gwich’in (northern Athabascan, Brooks Range) woman testified. The garden image being a frequently used Native idiom for the local environment and for custodial Native utilisation which, in response to threats of oil exploration in north Alaska, I also heard in Tikigaq, where the garden includes the ocean.

What follows here in verbatim transcripts of Native opinions that Berger published, quotes men and women from Inupiaq, Athabascan and southeastern Indian groups. Whatever their different landscapes, these witnesses express a unanimity of attachment to local life ways and to the conservation of land and sea territories. Some of these people, such as Polly Koutchak and Ronald Brower, also discuss cultural losses since Euro-American contact. These feelings echo those quoted from Leona Okakoq’s friend discussed in an earlier section of this text.

Testimonials Recorded by Thomas Berger

We Yup’iks do not wish to lose the land. We would like to use the land as our ancestors did. We would like to use it without any problems. —Mike Angaiak, Tununak

I always feel deep within myself the urge to live a traditional way of life – the way of my ancestors. I feel I could speak my Native tongue, but I was raised speaking the adopted tongue of my people, English. I feel I could dance to the songs of my people, but they were abolished when the White man came to our land… What I’m trying to say…is that I am… attempting to live a double life – and from that, my life is filled with confusion. I have a wanting deep within myself to live the life of my ancestors but the modernised world I was raised in is restricting me from doing so.Polly Koutchak, Unalakleet

Say a white man bought a license [limited entry permit] in Anchorage on this river, they figure they have a right to move into any spot in the country.Bobby Kokrine, Tanana

We are dealing with the strong lies of the oil companies in Nuiqsut [Alaska north coast]. They are destructing the hunting grounds within Nuiqsut…Because of the oil companies, there is scarcity of fish and other game animals… There used to be all types of animals, such as caribou, fish and other game. But they have decreased because of the oil activities.Bessie Ericklook, Nuiqsut

Oil development is a problem, our people are finding out. We can anticipate that in a few years…the Arctic Slope…will have as many fields developed to the enormity of Prudhoe Bay. They’re starting up in small areas, but cumulatively the total will have devastating impact on our culture, because we are a hunting culture. And that frame of mind has not left our people, even though we have been immersed into a cash economy…

You see the oil-lease sales taking place in areas where our people have deep, sacred ancestral feelings. Well, oil development in the Arctic is destroying those feelings quite rapidly. You can see it in the loss of language that our younger generations are now experiencing…You’ll find the eldest who may speak only Inupiaq and, on the other hand, their grandchildren speaking only English. So, we are presently in the Arctic Slope experiencing a very different form of degeneration of our society, both physically, mentally, economically, spiritually, and culturally…Ronald Brower, Barrow

XII The Paradox of ANCSA

[Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, 1971]

THE EXTRACTION OF oil and minerals in twentieth-century Alaska became possible only after long negotiated agreements with different proprietors of land. Most of the vast Alaska territory, post-ANCSA, was owned variously and in a complicated jig-saw by Native corporations and Native individuals, the Federal government and the State of Alaska. There are also smaller privately owned holdings.

Since a near-disastrous plan of the US government and the Atomic Energy Commission in 1959 to detonate five atom bombs twenty-five miles south of Tikigaq and the publication of protective environmental studies,4 later state-wide oil and mineral exploration likewise were to become hedged in with at least plausible ecological safguards.

As Native people testified to Berger in the mid-eighties, some or many of these safeguards are optimistic, ineffectual or illusory. According to both Inupiaq and Gwich’in testimony, both the movement of caribou and fish, among other species, were already endangered by early commercial exploration. The entire region, of course, is threatened over the long term by spills, pollution and environmental degradation.

But the purpose of this chapter is not to analyse the enormous and controversial for-and-against pipeline arguments. I can explore the issues already mentioned, but the minutiae are complex and a large literature exists.

Two points are nonetheless worth discussing. With respect to ANCSA, whose purpose appears benign, it has been convincingly argued that Native lands were given new legally assigned Native ownership in 1971 partly in order to make way for negotiated commercial developments. Without these seemingly generous deals (the Native corporations established by the Act were given one ninth of state lands and $962 million were distributed both to the new corporations and to individual Natives. About half of this money came from the federal treasury, half from oil sharing revenues) it would have been impossible, in the context of a late twentieth-century climate of political and environmental awareness, simply to take over land as had been done in the lower 48 for corporate advantage. Native testimony quoted above expresses awareness of the paradoxical tie between Native land ownership and the purposes of development.

The ANCSA brought Alaska Natives into the sphere of property relations that Euro-Americans for themselves took for granted but which were foreign to traditional Native/land relationships.

Berger, in this connection, emphasises another essential point. The ANCSA brought Alaska Natives into the sphere of property relations that Euro-Americans for themselves took for granted but which were foreign to traditional Native/land relationships. Post ANCSA, Alaska Natives became American land owners and if this were not in itself sufficiently alienating, there remained the additional danger that individual Natives and/or village corporations could, given the temptation of short-term gain, cash in their holdings and thereby disinherit their descendants. In this connection, Berger wrote:

Under ANCSA’s terms, on December 18, 1991, the Native corporations [set up by ANCSA ] are required to call in all their shares…In every village I visited, Alaska Natives expressed fear that their ancestral lands will be lost after 1991…

But there is [on the contrary] another view held in Alaska. Many non-Native Alaskans believe that in 1971, ANCSA settled forever the claims of Alaska Natives. The Natives received money and land, and legislation has extinguished any further claims they might have had.5

Along with this insight lies the danger just alluded to: that American enterprise would take advantage of the ANCSA deal as soon as land holdings became available for sale or lease. Prudhoe Bay oil development and oil explorations still closing in on Inupiaq and Gwich’in people, among other communities, were dependent on ANCSA, whose seemingly generous ‘return’ to Natives of Native land would quickly expose its availablility to sale and development. Berger continues:

Now, the popular thinking goes, we [corporate interests] can get on with the business of developing Alaska, unimpeded by Native claims and unobstructed by Native enclaves…There may be risks, but risk is in the nature of American enterprise… The Native peoples of Alaska, however, want to hold their ancestral land in trust for future generations…

In the Lower 48, generally, the federal government holds the land of Native Americans in trust for the benefit of the tribes on the reservations. In Alaska, state-chartered Native corporations now hold Native land as private land in fee simple… So long as a corporate model is the vehicle of holding Native lands, they will always be at risk… ANCSA has exposed the Natives’ land to other risks, but here are the principal ones: corporate failure, takeover, and taxation.

For Alaska Natives, the loss of their lands would be catastrophic. The severance of ties with traditional life and the foreclosure of any possibility that the villages might achieve a greater measure of self-sufficiency would have serious implications for non-Native Alaskans, as well. Without its Native villages, without the subsistence way of life, Alaska would not be Alaska…6

All that said, opinions among north Alaska Natives remain, as Berger wrote, divided. There are those who have long foreseen nothing but environmental danger, climate catastrophe and economic exploitation, but there are also many, as voiced often by village corporations, whose post-ANCSA existence was to make Native communities financially self-supporting and even profitable, who support development. Take, for example, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) which comprises almost twenty million acres of Alaska’s North Slope and which past and present Republican Administrations want to open to exploration:

No one will be more affected by the opening of ANWR than Alaska’s indigenous people, who will live among—and work on—the rigs, drills, and pipelines that would follow the discovery of any oil or gas reserve. The discovery of oil or gas in the region could bring an economic windfall to the subsistence tribes that live on Alaska’s North Slope, the coastal plain that faces the Arctic Ocean. But if a major disaster—like an oil spill or gas leak—were to occur in the area, it would devastate their only homeland.

The ambiguous status of such a development project is expressed powerfully in that statement. The speaker from a Gwich’in community, as paraphrased in The Atlantic, on the one hand expresses how employment, affluence and economic growth, all welcome and needed, will come in the wake of development. On the other hand, with the advent of rigs, drills and pipelines, the environment will be changed for ever. Not least there would be the possibility of environmental disaster.

But as one Inupiaq man, a geologist, commented in connection both to sub-surface exploration and climate change on the North Slope:

‘…the reality is that our region depends on oil and gas development. If we stop exploration, our communities dry up. And [by stopping exploration] we don’t change the climate one bit—it just means someone’s gonna open up the valve somewhere else.7

Wherever the valve is opened, the nature of the territory, its landscape and its people who will in future live with ‘rigs, drills, and pipelines’, will change for ever, whether they support or oppose development.

XIII

ON MY LAST visit to Tikigaq in 2009, public health, safety and comfort had been radically improved. There was a purpose-built clinic. Running water and flush toilets operated from a gigantic water tank. The north beach of Tikigaq’s old village had been fortified, securely but not prettily, by the US Army Corps of Engineers. A modern school building dominated the centre of new town site. The public safety officer had been trained and was in efficient communication with southern law enforcement colleagues. There were roads and trucks (a few of each), though most people travelled on four wheeled Hondas. This modernizing environment had developed since the 1975-76 village move. Most changes had been funded by oil revenue taxes paid to the North Slope Borough, by the State of Alaska and through ANCSA moneys. No-one can reasonably deny people conveniences enjoyed by mainstream non-Native Americans. Against these positives are the social catastrophes of alienation from pre-contact values and local knowledge systems: issues expressed by Berger’s informants and people such as Leona Okakok’s friend quoted earlier.

These historical and existential agonies are shared by millions of people world-wide and also by culturally self-identifying groups who often live marginally and in poverty. The deficits of dispossession are impossible to ignore. Does the desire to give everyone as much as possible imply also taking something away and a consequent process of alienation? As suggested in an earlier book, cultural alienation became a phenomenon of Tikigaq’s own experience of nineteenth century contact, when Inupiaq people, to survive economically, were forced to exchange local artefacts for manufactured goods. An animal skin, for example, with its local complexities of social and subsistence implication, transformed from an artefact expressing traditional values into an object of exchange: shorthand for a process of simplification of what previously had been local and complex.8


Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).

NOTES.

 

  1. Thorfinn Karlsfni, in Erik the Red’s Saga
  2. For example: Ingstad, Westward to Vinland 1969; ed. Fitzhugh, Vikings, Smithsonian 2000
  3. Berger, Village Journey 1985
  4. Ed. Wilimovsky, The Environment of Cape Thompson 1966. An account of the AEC’s nuclear project, forestalled in part by publication of Wilimovsky’s volume, follows later in this text.
  5. Berger 1985
  6. Berger, 1985: 96-7, 99, 101, 116e
  7. This and the previous statement comes from the Atlantic: “The GOP Tax Bill Could Forever Alter Alaska’s Indigenous Tribes” by Robinson Meyer. Dec. 2, 2017.
  8. See Ultimate Americans, 2008:63ff.

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