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Alaska drilling puts NCAI in unaccustomed uproar

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SAN DIEGO - As the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) met for its annual convention Nov. 11 under sunny skies in Southern California, the major drama of the session came from remote tribes in northern Alaska.

The issue of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) sparked the most heated public conflict in the four-day meeting, and produced a remarkable effort at compromise.

Although drilling plans seemed to die in the divided Congress earlier this year, the new Republican control of both houses is expected to enable President Bush to push though legislation that would authorize drilling on Alaska's North Slope.

NCAI passed a resolution at its mid-year conference in Bismarck, N.D. this summer opposing drilling in ANWR. However, some Alaskan tribal corporations, particularly those in the Inupiat region, took exception to the resolution. They argued that they would stand to gain from drilling on private tribally owned property.

Because of the division, NCAI leaders scheduled a half-hour debate at the end of the Nov. 14 general session in the Town and Country convention center, to give a voice to representatives of the pro-drilling tribal corporations. What followed was the closest the session came to being thrown into confusion.

Just before the scheduled debate, pro-drilling Inupiat tribal member Arnold Brower Jr. took the microphone and asked that the debate be tabled. An unseen second party quickly seconded the motion. However, Jonathan Solomon of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, a group of Gwich'in tribal traditionalists, stood up to oppose the motion.

"I came all the way from Alaska to talk about this matter," said Solomon at one of two microphones set up for floor comments.

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His complaint set off a flurry of conversation as the NCAI executive committee worked furiously to clarify the rules for debate and to maintain order. When the hall was calmed after about 10 minutes, the committee decided to postpone the debate until the following morning.

What puzzled some about this exchange is that the debate would have been to the benefit of the pro-drilling forces since NCAI already had a standing resolution to oppose drilling. NCAI usually only advocates issues that are supported by a clear majority, so drilling advocates would seemingly have benefited from bringing the issue to a debate and creating as much dissension as possible.

When questioned as to his motives, Brower would only answer that it was the right of tribes to develop their private property. The interview was quickly interrupted by Gwich'in tribal member Luci Beach who admonished Brower and told him he was being "disrespectful to the entire body."

Solomon, however, told Indian Country Today that Brower's faction was mistaken in thinking that tabling the debate would make the resolution go away.

"They just shot themselves in the foot," said Solomon.

Some back-room dealing ensued. When the issue was brought up again for debate the next day a tearful Faith Gimmel of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, who met with the Inupiat pro-drilling faction, announced that a compromise measure had been reached. NCAI would oppose drilling on public lands and take a neutral position on drilling proposed for private tribal lands.

"Whatever the Inupiat people need, they have; whatever the Gwich'in need, they have," said Gimmel, saying that compromise was the only solution.