Shadow Over An Ancient Land

updated 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Trimble Gilbert's eyes narrow as he gazes out the window of his log house at a fleeting movement on the spruce-covered mountain. As he focuses the lens of his telescope, the blur sharpens into the outline of a bull caribou meandering across a distant ridge. Gilbert, 54, calls his 9-year-old grandson, Virgil, and sets off up the East Fork of the Chandalar River to hunt for food. They tramp along well-worn paths beside Old John Mountain, as their ancestors did for generations. "My people's spirit, culture and values are tied to this land," says Gilbert. "I teach Virgil, 'Don't kill animals for fun. Never take more than you need.' If you respect this land and care for it, the land will provide for you."

And for millennia, the land has provided. The Gilberts are members of the 7,000-member Gwich'in Indian tribe, whose forebears, anthropologists believe, crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia 10,000 years ago. Today the tribe lives in settlements spread over 400 miles along the Alaska-Canada border. Gilbert makes his home in Arctic Village, an isolated community of 120 within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an 8.9 million-acre wilderness on Alaska's northeast coast. No roads lead there, and not until 1954 did bush air service connect it to the town of Fort Yukon, 110 miles south. Here, as yet untroubled by the outside world, the Gwich'in survive, hunting caribou and moose and fishing for pike, grayling and whitefish.

But last March 24, Trimble Gilbert saw his way of life touched by a shadow. That day, the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, 500 miles to the south, wreaking havoc on the fragile local ecology and forcing cancellation of this year's lucrative salmon harvest. "Everyone talks about the damage to the birds and the fish," says Gilbert, who is chief of Arctic Village. "I keep thinking about what is happening to the native people there who live off the land."

The issue is close to Gilbert's heart—and his home. Just 125 miles north of Arctic Village, under the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, lies what is thought to be a huge reserve of oil. The deposit is touted as the third biggest in the U.S.—after Prudhoe Bay and East Texas—estimated at 3.2 billion barrels. In 1987 the Department of the Interior recommended opening the area for exploration, a move President Bush has supported, citing the demands of national security.

But to Gilbert, oil drilling poses a threat to his people's survival. The Arctic Refuge is seasonal home to 180,000 porcupine caribou, which pass through the nearby mountains on their annual migration to calving grounds on the coastal plain. The residents of Arctic Village harvest several hundred of those caribou a year for meat. Although a final statement from the Interior Department concluded the overall effect of drilling would be "minor or negligible," an earlier Interior report had warned darkly that development might result in a "major population decline" in caribou and "long-term changes...in native community activities." Gilbert is understandably dismayed: "Caribou is our main diet. Without it, the Gwich'in will die."

Gilbert's fear raises troubling questions about how America's oil needs should be balanced against the threat to one of the country's last remaining subsistence cultures. "Without caribou, the Gwich'in would probably have to depend on welfare," says Bob Wolfe of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Subsistence Division. "Their social and communal structure would unravel, and you'd see attendant problems of alcoholism and suicide. That's if Arctic Village didn't disappear completely." Not surprisingly, the oil industry disagrees. "The Gwich'in concerns are greatly exaggerated," says Roger Herrera, executive consultant to BP Exploration, the largest oil company on Alaska's North Slope. "It's inconceivable that development will cause a change greater than natural cyclic ones. Anyway," he adds, "it's inevitable that these people will have to change."

That's not how the Gwich'in see it. Last month they filed suit against the Interior Secretary, Manuel Lujan, claiming an inherent right to a subsistence way of life. They are also demanding the government examine again the potential environmental impact that drilling will have on their community. The tribe has always defended its traditions tenaciously. In 1971 they chose to keep full title to their land, a 1.8 million-acre reserve nearly the size of Delaware, rather than participate in the lucrative Native Claims Settlement Act that paid Alaskan natives $988 million in return for giving up aboriginal rights. By extension, they also signed away future oil development rights. "They told us the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay would make oil cheap," says Gilbert. "We pay $3.60 a gallon for gas today. They said native people are going to make a lot of money. But money isn't always good for us. I see lots of our people spending it on alcohol and drugs. We'd rather have land to pass on to our children so they can survive."

When Trimble Gilbert is asked where he was born, he points toward the mountains with a playful smile. "Out there, somewhere on my father's trap line," he says. That was in 1935, when the families of Arctic Village still lived a nomadic life, spending their summers at fish camps and their autumns hunting moose, caribou and Dall sheep, before returning to the village for the winter. Gilbert's father, James, an ordained Episcopal minister, taught his children where to find game and how to make snowshoes from the sinews of caribou. "I had my first conversation with a white man when I was 17, when my grandmother and I went to Fort Yukon by dogsled," recalls Gilbert. "It was a new world to me."

In 1954 Gilbert married Mary Collin, from the neighboring village of Venetie. The couple raised three sons, Albert, now 33, Gregory, 28, and Bobby, 26, all of whom live nearby. When Gilbert was 23, he ventured to work "outside" for the first time, joining the National Guard to give his family an income. As many Arctic Village men do, he worked seasonally as a carpenter and fire fighter but always returned home.

In recent years technology has eased some of the hardships of life in Arctic Village. Snowmobiles have replaced dog teams, enabling hunters to travel farther and faster. And though running water is limited to a public shower, electricity arrived in 1980, bringing television. Still, the village is rustic and content to remain so. "Most villagers probably make no more than $3,000 a year," says Wolfe. "On paper, they're poor, but in every other way they're extremely rich."

Even a few outsiders have been lured by the intangible wealth of Gwich'in life. Steve Lee of Ellington, Conn., camped on the Arctic Village airstrip in June 1979 while fighting summer forest fires in the area. Staying on, he met Rose Sam, then the village postmaster, and the couple married a year later. "My parents weren't too happy with my decision," says Lee, 33. "But I said to my dad, 'You worked 55 hours a week your whole life. I built my own house. I got no mortgage, no major bills, no property taxes.' It's a hard life, but a good one."

Like the people he has settled among, Lee fears for the way of life he has chosen. "Some people argue that the Gwich'in can make money working in the oil field," he says. "The oil field will eventually run dry. Then what will happen to the Gwich'in?" Tribal members were asking that question themselves a month ago, when 200 Gwich'in from across Alaska and Canada converged on the village of Old Crow, Yukon Territory, for a gathering of their band. As each person rose to speak, he was handed a carved wood "talking stick." Later, people pulled out their caribou-skin dancing slippers, intricately decorated with beaded fireweed and tundra flowers. Trimble Gilbert unpacked his fiddle and launched into a foot-thumping rendition of "Eagle Island Blues," a jig that Hudson's Bay Company traders taught Gwich'in musicians a century ago. "Occasions like this are healing for us," said Gilbert, watching the festive crowd between songs. "Our future is uncertain. We hurt because we see the land being destroyed. We believe in the wild earth because it's the religion we're born with. After 10,000 years our land is still clean and pure. We believe we have something to teach the world about living a simpler life, about sharing, about protecting the land." If only the world would listen.

From Our Partners