Sweeney: Pragmatism, common ground for energy independence

My name is Tara Mac Lean Sweeney; I am an Iñupiaq Eskimo from Barrow, Alaska. My bloodlines are Panigeo and Ahmaogak, families with histories of public service and advocacy for our people. It is through sound values and excellent teachers that made me who I am today. I am not quiet, and I am dedicated to supporting the advancement of Alaska Natives.

I recently read a paper written by Evon Peter, the former young chief of the Neetsaii Gwich’in, on Palin, oil and Alaska. Mr. Peter has disagreed with me on issues in the past. It appears that this is one of those times. I am compelled to offer a counterpoint not out of malice, just a respectful attempt to set the record straight.

We need to make informed decisions without being romanced by fancy concepts that are out of touch with the struggles faced today by Natives. The truth indicates there is meaningful progress for Alaska Natives. It is Mr. Peter’s perceived path to justice that results in unsustainable progress for Natives, tethered to the pocketbook of the environmental industry that uses Natives to promote its hidden agendas.

We do not always disagree. We are in violent agreement that the historical treatment of Native peoples is atrocious. I seethe at the injustices invoked upon Native people through reorganization movements, assimilation strategies and broken treaties.

There are plenty of examples in our history when our government, under both Democrats and Republicans, let Native people down. I do not condone the violent and disrespectful treatment Native people have endured since the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. I detest it.

What happened then was an injustice. What we as Native people face today is a different reality.

Mr. Peter’s article is compelling, yet riddled with inaccuracies and misleading statements. Assertions of Sarah Palin’s perpetuation of colonialism are off-base and cloaked in a bigger agenda. I would like to provide some clarity around these issues.

Sen. John McCain is wise to reconsider his position on ANWR and take a more pragmatic approach. We cannot drill our way to energy independence, but we cannot conserve our way, either.

Prior to the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, my home region, the Arctic Slope, opposed the passage of ANCSA. Our leaders, Joseph Upicksoun and Charles “Etok” Edwardsen Jr., wrote to President Nixon requesting he veto the legislation because “Congress has failed to act in a responsible manner in adjudicating our land rights.” The discovery of oil in our backyard in the late 1960s was the catalyst for a federal land settlement in Alaska. We opposed development and ANCSA out of fear of the unknown, losing our subsistence rights, and not having a voice as decisions that affect the fiber of our being were on the table for discussion.

ANCSA eventually passed and, through it, Native claims to lands were extinguished. Alaska Natives received a cash settlement and title to a smidgeon of the aboriginal land claimed. Instead of tribal organizations as the governing body with profit and nonprofit arms, the government severed the ties between the three entities as far as land title was concerned, and instituted a Western corporate model that birthed Alaska Native corporations.

Mr. Peter’s people were not left out of ANCSA; they chose to receive title to their lands and not opt-in to the regional structure. It was their choice, and communities across Alaska made their own, choosing the regional and village corporation option. While three communities chose title to their land, my region was leading the charge to veto ANCSA.

Despite our initial opposition to onshore development in the 1970s and our continuous opposition to offshore development, it happened then and continues to this day. While the rest of America is crying at the high energy prices, my people are on the front lines assuming the greatest risk on behalf of our state budget and national security.

While some assign blame to Sarah Palin and John McCain for supporting off-shore development, we must look to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for passing legislation for off-shore development.

Like the Gwich’in, my people depend upon the Porcupine caribou. The land and the sea provide food for our souls and define who we are as Iñupiat. When the Gwich’in leased their lands to an Exxon extension for oil development in the 1980s, their leases contained no provisions for protection of the conveniently sacred Porcupine caribou. No protections whatsoever. Their opposition to development began when the environmental industry began funding the speaking circuit of a select few Gwich’in, providing stipends and all-expense-paid trips around the world to defend the biggest fundraising issue for groups like the Defenders of Wildlife. I provide this as a reference for those who desire more information beyond emotional conjecture.

We spent years battling industry for a seat at the table. We raised the bar and made the environmental regulations of production in our back yard the most stringent in the world. Because of our respect for and knowledge of the natural environment in our region, we support responsible development of the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We would not support it if it adversely impacted our traditional subsistence activities.

Gov. Palin is not perpetuating colonialism and sacrificing Natives by supporting ANWR development. She is listening to the majority of the Iñupiat and Alaskans, and doing what is right for our nation. Sen. McCain is wise to reconsider his position on ANWR and take a more pragmatic approach. We cannot drill our way to energy independence, but we cannot conserve our way, either.

Looking through a local lens, the people of rural Alaska can barely make ends meet due to the rising cost of energy. The cost increase impacts life in communities with little local economy or employment prospects. Rather than cater to both sides of the extreme, it is important we find common ground for the benefit of our people.

The Native way is to find the balance and it is with this type of approach that will get us to true energy independence.

Tara Mac Lean Sweeney is an Iñupiaq Eskimo from Barrow, Alaska.