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05/13/2011

The Place of Caribou Droppings

Tucked in the mountains of the Brooks Range, north of the Arctic Circle, lies the home to the Nunamiut people -- Anuktuvuk Pass.  The Nunamiut are caribou people, Alaska’s last nomadic group and the only inland Inupiaq Eskimos.  They are a proud people, proud of where they come from and who they are.  Today, their village in Anaktuvuk Pass is the only home most of them have ever known.  This month I was lucky enough to stand in awe of their mountains.

Clip_image002 At 5:00am I began my journey from Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, population 375,000.  From my airplane window I watched the landscape turn from the browns and greens of spring to the white snow blankets of winter.  Thankfully, I missed the most recent snow storm and flew through blue skies, landing in Anaktuvuk Pass (AKP), population 300. 

The only way to travel to AKP is via airplane—or snow machine if you have the time and a good map.  As far as many of the residents are concerned, they don’t need a road.  A road would bring real problems to a community working to hold on to their Inupiat traditions.  The Nunamiut were first visited by outsiders within many of the elder’s lifetimes, and the transformation the community has seen is rapid and continues today.  Residents hold onto their traditions and culture while satellite tv, internet and outside products enter the community. 

Now, they face their biggest challenge yet.  The State of Alaska wants to build a road, not to their community but to an outpost, called Umiat, just 65 miles away (remember in Alaska distance is relative).  That’s right, the road isn’t to connect people to people, but industry to oil and gas and coal.  Priorities.  This road, however, will have huge impacts on communities in the area.  

A road to Umiat will bring resource development to wreak havoc on the land.  A road will also bring outsiders to wreak havoc on the culture.  The village will be challenged to keep drugs and alcohol out, tourists from passing through historic areas, and worst of all competitive hunters competing with subsistence activities.

Anaktuvuk Pass doesn’t mean “place of caribou droppings” for nothing.  The Nunamiut depend on caribou as a root of their culture, traditions, and livelihoods.  Unlike other Inupiat communities on the Arctic coast the Nunamiut do not depend on marine mammals, but on the caribou that migrate through their village twice every year.  A road will change years of tradition and the lives of their children and grandchildren. 

The Sierra Club is working with the people of Anuktuvuk Pass to oppose the road. Recently the Village Council and region tribal council have passed resolutions opposing the road to Umiat. In addition we have provided support to Aunuktuvuk leaders as they have traveled to meet with key decision makers in Juneau, Alaska’s capitol. This is no easy feat; a trip to Juneau from Anuktuvuk involves three separate airplane flights.

The people of Anuktuvuk Pass are no strangers to hard work and the need for perseverance and these traits will serve them well as they stand up against development that threatens their culture and future. I’m proud of the Sierra Club for standing beside them in this fight.

-Lindsey Hajduk, Arctic Campaign Organizer

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