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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Environment, Inc.: Drilling debate jolts old image of Indians

By Tom Knudson Bee Staff Writer
Published 5:30 a.m. PST Sunday, Dec. 9, 2001

Log onto the Web sites of the National Wildlife Federation, the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups and you learn that the struggle to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska from oil drilling is about more than protecting the environment.

"It is also a human rights issue since the indigenous Gwich'in Indians rely on this important area for their subsistence way of life," says the Wilderness Society's Web site: <http://www.wilderness.org>www.wilderness.org.

But this fall, Petroleum News Alaska a trade journal reported a story that environmental groups have not publicized: Over the border in Canada, the Gwich'in Tribal Council joined forces with an oil firm to tap into energy resources on their lands.

"It's time for us to build an economic base," said Fred Carmichael, president of the tribal council in Inuvik, Canada. "Our people can no longer depend on living off the land for a livelihood. That's a fact of life."

For decades, environmental groups have championed American Indians as stewards of the Earth and symbols of conservation spirit. But today, as tribes turn to oil drilling, logging, gambling and even nuclear storage for economic independence, using Indians to promote environmental causes not only is risky and simplistic, but also is stirring charges of cultural insensitivity and exploitation.

"Environmentalists are using Indians the way the French and English used Indians in the French-Indian war: We're their foot soldiers," said David Lester, a Creek Indian and executive director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, which represents tribes involved in coal mining, oil and gas drilling, and other natural resource businesses.

Controversy over the Arctic refuge has simmered for years. But today, with the Bush administration pushing to open the region once and for all to energy exploitation, the dispute has reached the boiling point. In August, the House voted in favor of exploring for oil on a small portion of the refuge's coastal plain. The Senate still is weighing the matter.

The Gwich'in flatly defend their right to oppose Alaska drilling while forming an energy company Gwich'in Oilfield Services. The reason, they said, is simple: Drilling in Canada won't hurt the Porcupine caribou herd, on which the tribe has lived for centuries.

"We will not be drilling on any caribou grazing area that (Gwich'in) people don't want to drill on," said Carmichael. Owning 51 percent of the company "gives us that power," he said.

Scattered across 15 small villages, mostly in Canada, the tribe channels its opposition through a Fairbanks nonprofit, the Gwich'in Steering Committee, that in recent years has received more than $200,000 from foundations and environmental groups. Project director Faith Gemmill said Gwich'in resistance to drilling is homegrown.

"Nobody told us to do this. We had to do it," she said. "If oil development is allowed in the (caribou) calving grounds, it is a threat to the very survival of our culture."

Not far away, Inupiat Eskimos hold an opposite view: They say drilling can be carried out in concert with the caribou. But their position is discounted by environmental groups because the Inupiats have extensive ties with oil companies through their own tribal business: the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

"The national debate has placed us as caricatures us, as the tools of the oil industry and them the Gwich'in as caretakers of the environment," said Richard Glenn, vice president of lands for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. "It's unfortunate. And it's not accurate."

Environmental groups defend their portrayal.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corp. "has been, in various years, a Fortune 500 company. It has enormous resources. This is a (business) that has PR firms, lawyers, lobbyists working for it, unlike the Gwich'in," said Adam Kolton, arctic campaign director for the Alaska Wilderness League.

And the Gwich'in's new oil company is a nonissue, he said.

"The Gwich'in have never uniformly opposed oil and gas development," said Kolton. "The issue is whether or not to have oil development in the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd."

But Alaska Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski, an ardent advocate of drilling, said the tribe is trying to have it both ways.

"It's the same Gwich'in nation," Murkowski said. "My point is the inconsistency of it."

Using American Indians to spearhead conservation campaigns is an old public relations trick. Keep America Beautiful an anti-litter group did it three decades ago with advertisements that featured Iron Eyes Cody, an Indian actor, who shed a single tear as he watched people litter.

The landmark ad, titled "People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It," first aired on Earth Day, 1971. It is credited with helping launch the modern environmental movement in this country.

"The crying Indian image was very powerful," said David Lewis, an associate professor of history at Utah State University. "But that image was also of a 19th-century Indian. ... (It) locks Indians in the past and keeps them from being considered modern. ... It hides a more complicated story."

Yet such portrayals became trendy. As Lewis put it in an article in the American Indian Quarterly in 1996: "Indians became symbols for the American counterculture, American environmentalism and New Age mysticism symbols for a way of life in opposition to urban, white, Christian, techno-industrial society."

Today, as tribes move to develop their own economies, such images are more myth than reality, said Leon Bear, chairman of the Skull Valley Goshute tribe in Utah, which faces environmental opposition for plans to bring a nuclear waste storage facility to its remote 18,000-acre reservation.

"They want to keep us the way they think of us: living in tepees and riding horses," Bear said. "That's not real. ... You can't feed your family on a stereotype."

Many say the myth of Indians as the original conservationists was never true in the first place.

"We have always interacted intensively with our environment," said Ross Soboleff, a member of the Haida and Tlingit nations in Juneau, Alaska. "We've never put it on a pedestal and worshipped it."

Lester, director of the tribal energy group, said conflicts between Indians and environmental groups are born of differing cultural views.

"In the Indian world view, the cosmos is not divided between light and darkness. For the environmental movement, it is. A tribe can be very ecologically minded and very development-minded at the same time," he said.

Even the Gwich'in do not always side with environmentalists.

"They ruined our fur industry, and I'm not happy about that," said Carmichael, the Gwich'in tribal council president. "They gave a lot of bad publicity on the seal hunting and the trapping. They made it look like we're a bad bunch of people up here."

In the battle to stop oil drilling on the Arctic refuge, however, the two sides are working together. Last month, the Gwich'in Steering Committee teamed up with two major environmental groups to sponsor a full-page ad in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, touting the Gwich'in view.

"Hawaiians understand that native cultures and unspoiled places should be treasured," says the ad, depicting caribou grazing before majestic mountains.

But in Alaska, most Natives actually support drilling. In 1995, the Alaska Federation of Natives, which represents 400 village corporations and is the state's largest native organization, passed a resolution in favor of tapping the refuge's energy resources.

"Drilling on the coastal plain will not destroy in any way the Porcupine caribou herd. That is propaganda," said John Tetpon, the federation's director of communications.

"Environmental groups are using the Gwich'in to advance their own agenda. That's as simple as I can put it," Tetpon said.

Environmentalists say that's not the case.

"It's entirely appropriate to join with people who share our concerns," said Philip Kavits, vice president of communications for the National Wildlife Federation, which helped sponsor the Hawaii ad. "We continue to feel that the concerns of the Gwich'in offer real evidence that the (refuge) is too wild to waste."

Despite Gwich'in opposition to refuge drilling, pro-oil Alaska natives are reluctant to criticize the tribe's energy company.

"It is a bit of a double standard," said Glenn, the Arctic Slope vice president and Inupiat. "But we have a lot more in common than we have differences. We don't want to be divided from them."

About the Writer
The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or <mailto:tknudson@sacbee.com>tknudson@sacbee.com

Related links
Ecological Indian talk
Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian

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