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Arctic tribe finds itself in middle of struggle between oil and caribou

When Gwitchin tribal elders asked Norma Kassi to leave her village in the Arctic wilderness, she agreed.

Tell the world about ours, they said. Help us save it.

"Our entire existence is based on the caribou," said Kassi, a member of the Gwitch'n Nation, which lives in Canada's Yukon Territory. "To open this sacred place, they don't need to."

Kassi makes her home among her Gwitchin elders in the village of Old Crow, 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. And for tens of thousands of years, their elders before them have made their homes in the Canadian-Alaskan wilderness, maintaining a delicate balance between themselves, the environment and the animal that sustains their life the caribou.

But lurking below the surface of this fragile caribou habitat is a wild card that could change everything: oil maybe as much as 9 billion barrels.

Many coalitions, conservation groups and environmentalists have joined Kassi, 45, in telling the story of a potentially devastating collision between U.S. multinational oil companies and the caribou calving grounds in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Alaska Coalition, a group of more than 400 nationwide organizations, launched an awareness campaign Oct. 14 in Lincoln, Neb., titled the Caribou Commons Project. The show features the work of Ken Madsen, an award-winning photographer, writer and environmentalist. Madsen will take a music and slide show across the nation, with the tour ending in May.

He will be joined throughout the tour by members of the Gwitch'n Nation. His photos feature stunning images that capture the beauty of the Gwitchin and life within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge contains the last 5 percent of land not available for oil exploration" on the Alaskan North Slope, said Jen Schmidt, grassroots coordinator for the Alaska Coalition. She describes the land as a national treasure, on par with Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks.

Today, 19 Gwitch'n communities roughly 7,500 native people are spread across the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness. The Vuntut Gwitchin of the Old Crow community make their home in the Canadian refuge area where the Porcupine and Crow rivers meet.

Tyler Sutton, a Nebraska attorney and board member of the Conservation Alliance of the Great Plains who has traveled to Alaska's coastal plain, described the area as "magical."

"It has the feel of the American Great Plains," he said. "You have this sense the land is alive."

The caribou cross the Porcupine River, migrating across the Alaskan-Canadian border during fall and spring. In summer, they calve on the Arctic coastal plain in the Arctic National Refuge Area.

To date, there are no signs of oil and gas development on the Canadian side.

"Part of the issue here is the Gwitch'n people want the American side protected from development," Sutton said.

Added Charlene Porslid, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant history professor who grew up in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory: "The Gwitch'n Nation have been so successful in keeping that kind of development out until now."

But seismic tests performed in 1984 and 1985 reveal as many as nine billion barrels of oil beneath the coastal plain. One of two bills before Congress would make the 19.6-million-acre refuge a wilderness area. The other would permit oil exploration.

"Neither side has had enough power to get their bill through Congress and signed by the president," said Phil Garrett, deputy manager of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Oil and gas exploration debates have continued for more than a decade, with the Clinton administration opposed to development, said Mitchell Snow, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Resources Committee, introduced the most recent oil-exploration bill.

Madsen and Kassi both encouraged people to get involved in protecting the caribou environment.

"It belongs to you. It belongs to me. Most of all, it belongs to the Gwitch'n people," said Madsen.

A number of people note the similarities between American Indians, the Great Plains and buffalo and the Gwitch'n Nation, the coastal plain and the caribou.

Said Kassi: "The Arctic is a beautiful place to share. We don't want to happen there what happened in the south. Surely, we've learned our lessons by now."

Louie LaRose, a Winnebago from Nebraska and president of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, has spoken with Gwitchin officials about caribou preservation and U.S. tribal efforts to revive the buffalo culture.

"We are talking about restoring that relationship, and they are talking about saving their relationship," LaRose said. A loss of the calving grounds would be disastrous, he said. "It would have grave consequences in the cultural and spiritual part of their lives."

Jodi Rave covers Native American issues for Lee Newspapers. She is based at the Journal Star in Lincoln, Neb., and can be reached at 473-7240 or at

Updated: Sunday, October 17, 1999
Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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