I leap from our small boat into the surf to step onto the beach at Pt. Hope, the longest continually inhabited place in North America, and the community on Alaska’s most north western point. The Mayor, Steve Oomittuk, waits at the top of the sandy bluff to welcome the first boatload of Greenpeace visitors coming ashore from the Esperanza, anchored a few miles off the point. We’ve come to visit with the community, to hear from the people who live on the edge of the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic, where Shell plans to begin drilling for oil in a few weeks time. We’ve been invited to have a meeting with the community. We want to tell them of the research we will be doing here, taking a small submarine down into the Chukchi to see what life is at risk on the seafloor close to the sites where Shell plans to drill. We want to hear what they have to say about drilling in their waters.
I am struck, early, by the warmth and openness of the people here. They share their stories freely and with great pride. A member of the Tribal Council stands with me on the beach pointing towards the cliffs. He tells me how he and the others climb high up on the rocky cliffs to harvest large green Murre eggs. They wear a special shirt cover that can hold a many dozens of eggs he says, and no, they use no ropes for safety.
A bit later, while we wait for the meeting to begin, a woman tells me of the bowhead whale and the skin boats they still use here to hunt the whale, just as their ancestors did. In the community center, a large geodesic dome building that stands out among all the usual small weathered buildings that make up the town, pictures showing the hunts, the traditions, and the treasured members of their community who have passed fill the walls.
Point Hope, I learn, is all about the people, the Inupiaq people. And the people here are all about the land and the sea, their “garden” that brings their foods and their way of life. And they are about each other, their community. They talk about life through the frame of each season and what it brings to harvest. Caribou now, then berries or eggs, later salmon, seals and whales. Each harvest is full of activity shared together.
They seem to care most about taking care of one another. They receive the whale, their “gift”, and then give to all who have need. First, always, they provide for the elders, the widowed, and the women without men in the community. The joy of participating together in subsistence activities and sharing with their community comes through every conversation I have. They don’t have all the material comforts of a larger city, like Anchorage, yet everyone I met, even those who lived or studied abroad for a time, all said they want to live here, in their cherished Pt. Hope community.
But, this is a difficult moment in time here, as Shell is poised to begin offshore oil production in the Chukchi. Eyes well up with tears too, as people contemplate Shell’s plan to drill in their garden. What will happen to our food and our way of life, they worry. Some are angry. Others are scared, or holding onto thin hope that it will somehow go okay. The Mayor said Shell is not prepared, and drilling in the sea is not necessary. He and the others worry that the animals, the walrus and the whales, will leave. The animals, Steve explains, makes us who we are. Without the animals we won’t be who we are any longer.
Steve’s wife, Phyllis, learned the traditional Eskimo dances from her grandmother and the other elders.
Following our meeting, and a pot-luck meal, Phyllis and the other members of the community treat us to a wonderful evening of drumming, and native song and dance. Her hands reach gracefully towards the earth, and then the sky. A young girl copies her movements in earnest.
Every dance has a story Phyllis tells me later, with a gleam in her eye. Her movements on the dance floor are fluid, and animal-like, I think, wondering which stories she was dancing? Surely some are about the bowhead whale.
They use every part of the whale. Steve took us out to the “old house” last lived in by his Aunt in 1975 when he was a child and she was in her 90s. The walls are made from whale jaw bones he showed us, the same bones that surround the flower-full cemetery in the center of Point Hope. Erosion of the coastline, though, has washed hundreds of these old houses into the sea, reclaiming the whale bones forever.
Coming to this place and meeting the people who have so much at stake should Shell and other big oil companies move in to exploit the waters they live by was a moving experience. An invitation for the Greenpeace visitors to join in an Eskimo dance was an honor we greatly enjoyed.