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Defending Alaskan Native ways and ANWR

The shouting is over for now, but the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is still in danger. Although the nomination of Gale Norton as secretary of the Interior raised concern among Alaska Native communities and environmental groups, Norton was still confirmed.

What does that mean to Alaska Native tribes and their allies elsewhere? Will President Bush now follow through on his campaign promise to open up parts of ANWR to oil and gas exploration and drilling? We think he will try.

The central problem is that new efforts at oil drilling threaten the very cultural core of Arctic peoples in the United States and Canada. Oil drilling affects Alaska Native subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering, issues given short shrift by Alaskan state and federal governmental authorities. But Alaska Natives have never compromised their inherent sovereignty over traditional lands where subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering occur.

A number of Alaska Native tribes and other concerned groups raised subsistence and other issues in Fairbanks during a press conference sponsored by the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Alaska Episcopal Bishop Mark MacDonald said the church opposed opening ANWR to oil drilling primarily "out of concern for the threat that development raises for the Gwich'in Nation."

Jonathan Solomon of Fort Yukon, representing the Gwich'in Nation, joined MacDonald and Episcopal clergy from Alaska's interior. Solomon noted the coastal plain of ANWR is the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, "central to our culture, our religion, our social structure and our livelihood. Oil development on the coastal plain would not only threaten the caribou we depend on, it would threaten the future of our people."

Because sustainable development and environmental issues - such as the effects to date of oil and gas development in Alaska, climate change, and permafrost maintenance - are important to all participants in Arctic affairs, the Indigenous voice is urgently needed. Renewed assaults on the environment for purely economic reasons are about to be ratcheted up. The new U.S. administration's eagerness for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge calls for strong and effective voices against unfettered exploitation. Alaska Native and other groups are sounding a new note of urgency.

A vital step took place recently when the intergovernmental Arctic Council ?- a group of eight nations that attempts to address the common concerns and challenges faced by Arctic governments and peoples ? recognized the Arctic Athabaskan Council and the Gwich'in Council International as permanent participants of the Arctic Council.

Indigenous groups are not alone. Organizations such as First Nations Development Institute and the Circumpolar Conservation Union have been helping Indigenous groups gain control of their own assets and access to decision-making forums of the powerful. Strategic contributions and targeted contributions from interested non-governmental organizations are possible now.

All these efforts represent a variety of new tools for Alaska Native participation in the all-important decision-making process. Native peoples must develop a strong voice within the councils of the powerful. Nothing less is acceptable if the future of our children is to have a solid foundation.

Despite the soothing arguments from those who favor oil exploration within the coastal plain, once oil drilling is established, the environment can never be restored to its pristine quality and use for Alaska Native tribes. Our task is to work diligently to help protect this area from the type of development that could destroy the Alaska Native traditional way of life forever.

Other paths must be found to meet the real future concerns of the nation without oil drilling in ANWR. Once again we find ourselves in a situation where the cultural life and needs of the Gwich'in and other Indigenous tribes confront the economic colossus of the general society. The challenge may be daunting, but it is one that must be met and conquered for the generations to come.