View from Wainwright
After a short drilling season
Alaska's first in the Arctic in several decades
the last of Shell's ships have made way for warmer climates until 2013. In Wainwright, the community closest to Shell's offshore oil leases, that means the camps have closed down, and the air traffic and radio chatter to and from ships is on hold. Life is a little quieter for now.
As exploration is put on pause, one Wainwright family is struggling with what oil development off their village's coast could mean for their future.
Linda and Ransom Agnasagga both have borough jobs. They have a vehicle to drive and a house they keep warm in the winter. They know the financial security of the North Slope Borough, through its history with energy development, has helped with their own security.
The price of modern life
But at what additional cost? Ransom asks.
"We all understand that we're dependent on taxation to keep the borough governments running," he said. But that has put many Alaska Natives in a difficult position when it comes to political priorities.
In addition to a regular income, they also live off of caribou, beluga, seal, fish, fowl and any number of other natural resources. They live a life in precarious balance between subsistence and a cash economy.
The fear is, what happens if or when that balance either can't be maintained or is threatened by an industrial accident? Or rapid social change? Oil exploration and broad-spectrum development bring these possibilities right to their back yards, Ransom said.
Linda and Ransom definitely have misgivings about development, whether it's right or wrong for their current and ancestral home. But the most important thing, Ransom said, is that he and other locals — no matter which side they land on — must have a voice in what happens next.
The Agnasaggas have done their own research into the science, politics and effects of oil and gas exploration. Ransom describes his feelings about the prospect before him and his community as chaos.
There are benefits promised, he said, but the only sure bet he can see are the risks — the environmental risks and the cultural ones.
"And when you don't have a voice in something, it just makes you feel even more powerless," Ransom said.
There is the possibility of a twofold loss here, he said, the fading away of culture and tradition, as well as the potentially monumental risk to the environment. For an Inupiaq, a threat to the environment is a direct threat to culture and heritage.
Empowering future generations
"You want your children to have a choice," Ransom said.
He and Linda are worried that their children will have even less control over the future, as the many decades-long wave of change continues to sweep rapidly through Alaska's Arctic communities.
"We feel like it's the land claims all over again," Ransom said. "We're having to hold on to what culture we have left."
Linda is concerned that younger generations aren't prepared for the changes to come, and not well versed enough in the history of Alaska Natives, their rights and what that means for today's decisions.
"Our kids aren't even educated in this, and they're the ones who will be affected," she said.
Ransom said he hopes all of his friends, family and neighbors in the Arctic will speak their minds clearly when it comes to development and the energy and cultural trends of the future
no matter what their opinions may be.
For instance, he knows many of his neighbors support drilling and the economic stability it could bring, even as he questions it.
"If you're in favor of development, make sure they're doing it right," Ransom said.
The rock and hard place Ransom seems to be stuck between is the financial pressure he feels to support the North Slope's economy, and the grief he feels when he sees traditional culture slipping away.
While many an effort has been made to help the two coexist, there are still traditions that are fading every day.
"They want (us) to become something that we're not," Ransom said. What happens, he asked, when Native Alaskans do adopt a different, more modern lifestyle and value system?
They're in the midst of that change already, Ransom said. In a very short time stability has become inextricably linked to money, rather than one's ability to hunt, sew and gather supplies from the land.
That changes the social dynamic of the community, he said. "Social structure is hard to maintain when there's value put on everything, money-wise."
And what happens, Ransom asked further, when that new life isn't sustainable, isn't satisfying, isn't at peace with the heart and roots of a person?
Linda's own youth reflected that.
"My grandmother didn't like the changes," Linda said. "She had to live with it. The way she lived with it was going out camping."
That's why Linda, raised by her grandmother, grew up living half the year in the backcountry. That's where she learned a lot of the traditional practices she still uses today
from skin sewing to fishing and gathering other foods and supplies.
She wonders, however, how much her children and grandchildren will absorb of their culture's history and tradition, and how it will be able to compete with the modern world they live within.
These are not new dilemmas, and according to the Agnasagga family they aren't getting any simpler. There is a tension in the community, Ransom said. It comes from the knowledge that while the benefits of exploration and Western culture are often plentiful, there is a cost. As of yet, he and his family feel it's impossible to tell how steep that price will be to those who live on the edge of development.
Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at email@example.com.