Dispatches from the Last Frontier: Protecting Point Hope

By Caroline Cannon, President of the Native Village of Pt. Hope, Alaska

Photo of Caroline Cannon
Caroline Cannon
I recently traveled with Alaska Wilderness League to Washington, DC to speak to government officials on behalf of my tribe about the concerns we have with offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. As the president of my tribe, I represent over 800 Inupiat tribal people whose ancestors have lived on the Chukchi Sea coast for thousands and thousands of years.  My community of Point Hope is known as the oldest settlement in North America. The cultural and subsistence traditions of Point Hope are inextricably linked to the health of the Arctic ecosystem and the resources of our traditional lands and waters.

It is hard to leave my community, but I have been directed by my elders to speak on behalf of our people and the unborn. The summer is a particularly busy time for my people. After celebrating the spring whale hunt, we spend weeks harvesting seals, fish, sea bird eggs, berries, and other foods the ocean and land provides us. The summer sun does not set in the Arctic, so we work until 2:00 in the morning sometimes preparing fish and meat to dry – the work is hard but we need to store foods for the cold winter months. Nonetheless, I have traveled to Washington, DC to fight and ensure that my community will continue to be home to the generations that come after me – to stop risky and aggressive oil and gas development in our lands and waters.

There is no proven technology to clean up oil spills in the Beaufort, Chukchi or Bering Seas, where there are often solid or broken ice conditions, and rough seas. I am haunted by the worry that an oil spill will occur in our waters and what our home would be like if such a disaster would occur.

The damage could last a lifetime – our lands and waters could forever be contaminated by oil.  In turn, 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 want to stress that scientifically it has been proven that our people who eat our Native foods are healthier over those who eat processed foods. And it’s not just the food – it is our way of life, our identity and a celebration of our heritage. An oil spill could truly mean an eradication of our culture, people and way of life.

I know we have to fight for our rights to a clean environment and the continuation of our culture and traditions because that is what our elders have dictated. We are to do everything in our power to protect our water, our land, our way of life. The proposed oil and gas activities affect the very foundations of who we are as individuals and as a people. We have a right to life, to physical integrity, to security, and the right to enjoy the benefits of our culture. For this, we will fight; we just hope not to die as a people during the process.