When US Senators listen to Arctic voices, only some resonate

Sam Alexander, of Fort Yukon and Fairbanks, told a Senate committee the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is a sacred place. Photo: Liz Ruskin.

Eleven Alaskans testified before the U.S. Senate Energy Committee on Thursday — for and against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While senators said they wanted to listen to the people of the Arctic, many seemed to hear selectively.

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Sam Alexander, from Fort Yukon and Fairbanks, cuts a striking figure in a congressional hearing, and not just because of his moose hide vest.

“Like many Gwich’in, I served in the military,” Alexander told the committee. “As a Green Beret I deployed to Iraq to free the oppressed. Little did I realize, I’d come home to find my own people’s freedom under attack.”

Alexander says drilling in the refuge would threaten the Porcupine caribou herd, the animals his people depend on. He spoke like someone from very, very far beyond the beltway.

“When somebody’s looking unhealthy, we say nanakat gwats’i’hindii – ‘Go to your land.’ We say that because we know the land will heal you,” Alexander said. “The land is essential to our way of life. It provides us sustenance and we view it as sacred. The caribou come from a place we call Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, the sacred place where life begins.”

The Senate Energy hearing on ANWR, as seen through the C-SPAN monitor. Photo: Liz Ruskin.

And that caribou birthplace? It’s none other than the coastal plain of the refuge, the so-called 1002 area, the swath at the far north of ANWR that Congress may open up to oil drilling.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., an elk hunter, was enthralled.

“In listening to everyone here today, what really struck me is the way you talked about this place,” Heinrich told Alexander.

Heinrich was turned off by others who called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by its acronym.

“‘ANWR’ sounds to me like a Middle Eastern country covered in sand where we should just develop lots of oil and gas,” Heinrich said. “They don’t talk about a refuge. And you said, ‘this is the sacred place where life begins.’ Can you talk a little be more about how your people talk about this place?”

Alexander obliged. Next to Alexander at the witness table was Matthew Rexford, a leader from Kaktovik. That village is on the coastal plain, within the 1002 area. Rexford says oil means jobs and a better standard of living for his people. He says his community also depends on subsistence hunting and the richness of the refuge.

“Another of those natural resources is oil and gas, and lots of it,” Rexford said. “We depend on the bounty of ANWR.”

Sen. Heinrich did not ask him to elaborate.

And so it went. Witnesses discussed caribou populations and whether modern drilling techniques would or wouldn’t harm them. Then senators, for the most part, asked friendly questions of whichever Alaskan represented the view they held on drilling when they walked into the hearing room.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., complained about the make-up of the witness list. She said she wanted to hear more from “Indian Country,” not just from leaders of the for-profit Native corporations.

Richard Glenn, an ASRC vice president. Photo: Liz Ruskin

“Individual tribal members, as we have seen throughout Alaska and throughout the United States of America, don’t support this kind of development because they believe in the wildlife, nature, that God has given us, and we are stewards of Mother Earth,” Cantwell said. “So I thank them for that. I thank them for their strong spiritual beliefs.”

That ignited a slow burn in Richard Glenn, one of the pro-drilling witnesses. He’s a vice president of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and a geologist. But Glenn is also a tribal member and he said it seems like Cantwell only wanted to listen to certain Native perspectives.

“That’s looking for your own opinion, and trying to find people to match it,” Glenn said.

Glenn says he could’ve spoken his mother tongue at the hearing but considered it disrespectful in that context.

“We speak our own language to each other. It’s a beautiful language. It’s appropriate. It’s sometimes a lot more efficient than the English,” Glenn said. “And to come here and just spout a few lines in front of them to somehow enhance my own legitimacy seemed like an unfair use of our gift.”

The Energy Committee is supposed to vote on an ANWR bill by mid-November. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Energy Committee, says she has no doubt the legislation can raise at least $1 billion for the federal treasury over the next decade, as required by the budget Congress passed last month.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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