Alaska Native Leaders Offer Diverging Views on Offshore Oil Drilling

Jul 31, 2015

The Inupiat people of Point Hope, Alaska, celebrate a successful whaling season with song and dance.


But community leader Steve Oomittuk worries about what could happen to the ocean if the oil industry finds what it’s looking for in the Chukchi Sea.

“Are they capable of not having a(n) oil spill or a blowout or anything like that?” he asked. “I feel they’re not ready.”

Royal Dutch Shell officials, who’ve been given conditional permission to explore in the Chukchi this summer, insist they can do so safely, as in this testimonial on the company’s website.

Steve Oomittuk
Credit Jill Burke/Alaska Dispatch News

“Our current focus is to listen to the stakeholders and understand their concerns, …” a Shell official said in the testimonial.

Oomittuk was born in Point Hope, a village on Alaska’s northwest coast. He’s concerned offshore oil development will threaten the food supply of people who, like him, subsist mainly on what they harvest from the sea.

“Our parents and their parents before them have always wanted to ensure that our ocean is protected, and that our way of life continues,” he said.

Another Native leader says that traditional way of life included hardships that most North Slope residents don’t have to deal with anymore, because of modernization that came with the oil industry

“To have fresh water, they had to melt ice and snow,” Charlotte Brower said.

Charlotte Brower
Credit arcticwomenssummit.com

“To have heat, they had to burn whale oil. And to travel from place to place, they had to walk or use a dog team.”

Brower is mayor of the sprawling North Slope Borough, which gets 97 percent of its revenues from the oil industry. She talks often about how the industry has improved the lives of Alaska’s Native peoples, as in this recent appearance before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“We formed a local, home-rule charter government, and built roads, airports, schools, hospitals, houses and utilities,” she said.

Oomittuk agrees there’ve been economic benefits. But he’s troubled that it comes at a high price -- a tradeoff between jobs and culture.

Editor's note: Charlotte Brower declined to be interviewed for this story.