This article was published in theTundra Times, the first statewide newspaper about Alaska Native issues and concerns. The Tundra Times filled a void when the other papers in Alaska either reported little on Alaska Native concerns or were largely hostile. This article is now a small bit of history. Glendon Brunk has moved on to other things. I should say I developed a great deal of personal respect for his thoughtful advocacy of his concerns. The overall concern with the limiting views of Alaska Natives remains especially in the media and curriculum of schools. Readers might question the limits and flaws of the analogies in the article. Readers might also wish to consider if the central issues have changed and in what ways. As for ANWR the debate continues. I have always thought all the concern about drilling onshore paled with Inupiat concerns about off shore drilling which has proceeded near these very areas. I would argue it seems more sensible to drill on shore than in Arctic waters. An off shore oil spill would produce far more problems than any on land.

...Paul Ongtooguk

Group Wants Only ‘Genuine’ Natives

Paul Ongtooguk

[Used on with permission of the author, for educational purposes only.]

"Slide show and presentation on ANWR - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska and oil development, environmental concerns, the view of Alaska Natives."


The poster announcing all this was photocopied on brightly colored paper like so many plastered around Michigan State University. Yet I read it again. It was announcing what I knew to be a dramatic event for Alaska, for conservationists, and for Alaska Natives. Environmentalists were, for the first time that I could recall, not only paying attention to the environment but also to the original inhabitants of it.

As a former tribal council member and an Alaska Native in Kotzebue, Alaska, I knew that environmentalists have not disagreed with Alaska Natives as much as they have simply ignored us. Now a presentation about Arctic land and sea that included us, I decided this was worth attending.

The Department of Natural Resources auditorium was set up like a classroom for a hoard of undergraduates. The chairs were cramped and had irritatingly small pivoting writing boards attached to the right side of the interlocking row of seats. The audience was a wide range of people, infants to elders, with a balance of gender. Noticeably the audience was almost completely uniform in race. It reminded me once again that the environmental groups seem to be almost exclusively Caucasian. How to account for this?

There was a lot of commotion as people filed in which provided time to look over all the brochures and information sheets picked up from the tables. There were also petitions available to sign. The brochures included the Alaska Conservation Foundation" keep our last wilderness treasure as a blessing to the whole world." - Dr. Margaret E. Murie "...we encourage special gifts in honor or memory of family and friends." The brochure had a stamped envelope attached for donations. Another hand out announced in bold print "You Can Help Save The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge" and at the bottom, also in bold print, "Spread The Word !" In all three handouts had four puffins, three brown and one polar bear, one wolf, one porcupine, and eleven caribou.


The meeting began as Rosemary Alexander of the Mid-Michigan Sierra Club thanked the MSU Forestry Club, the Sierra Club, and the Audubon Society for their active support of the presentation. The room was filled to capacity with a number of people standing along the wall. There were perhaps three hundred or more people, although it was difficult to estimate.

Rosemary then introduced Susan Grace Stoltz dressed in plain folk dress with acoustic guitar. She opened with song lyrics that spoke of "the Arctic place I call home". I thought about this later when she said she lived in Fairbanks, Alaska (well within the treeline and south of the arctic). She had moved to Fairbanks from Michigan in the 80's. The next song lyrics included "brothers and of the wild I feel it in my bones..." She played the acoustic guitar with skill and sang with clarity and power. The audience vigorously applauded displaying obvious enthusiasm. The next song had audience participation. The key word was garbage. Every time Grace sang "garbage" the listeners shouted "Garbage!". They were loud.

The lyrics were an indictment of consumerism and waste by Americans. Still, the applause was strong. At the conclusion Susan Grace Stoltz spoke of traveling across the country, meeting people who were "bummed out" that the earth is dying. She countered, however, by saying the earth is not dying it is being killed by people with names and addresses. At the end of her last song, which was the introduction for the actual message, she urged us to..." write and tell them to stop."

The center piece of the evening was the slide show and narration by Glendon Brunk. Glendon described himself as a trained game biologist who had moved to Alaska when he was eighteen years old. The slides opened with Arctic birds, animals and scenery and then moved to the Prudhoe oil fields, pipeline and facilities. His central argument was that Prudhoe was not the clean, ecologically sensitive production field the oil companies portrayed it to be. Rather he displayed photographs of piles of rusted oil drums, miles of scarred tundra from exploration (he noted that the exploration trains no longer operated in summer to reduce compacting the tundra cover which produced the scars) and rectangular containment ponds which he argued did not actually contain the tainted water. The implication for Glendon was oil exploration and development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would also be mismanaged and destructive.

Glendon Brunks' second argument centered on the need for Americans to reduce wasteful consumption of energy by using more efficient refrigerators and appliances, buying fuel efficient cars and embarking on a life style that lowered U.S. energy demands.

A third argument and the most intriguing from my perspective concerned the portrayal of Alaska Natives and development. In the portrayal of Prudhoes' operation Glendon noted that while caribou bulls might stay in active operations areas Prudhoe was no longer a calving area. Females and young only went by the buildings and pipelines when driven by heavy mosquito infestation. This has bearing on ANWR and Alaska Natives in that some locations targeted for exploration are just that - places where caribou bear their young. During the presentation Glendon Brunk stated the Kaktovik community, nevertheless, approved of oil exploration because the leadership was motivated by greed and a short sighted belief in the power of money to correct social problems. In contrast, Arctic Village and Venetie were described as a part of the 7,000 people of the Athapascan nation who, had by an agreed document, opposed opening ANWR to oil exploration and development. According to the presentation the Alaska Natives who were against oil exploration and development were acting on their heritage and tradition.

What to make of all this? Glendon Brunk asked people to sign a petition against ANWR exploration and development anywhere in the area including the strip of Section 10 (0)z coastal zone presently under congressional consideration. He argued oil exploration in ANWR is short sighted.

As an Alaskan Native and a citizen of the state I felt as though I had visited an environmental church service, perhaps the church of Henry David Thoreau. The participant songs, the call for a conversion from our consumer philosophy, the potent mixture of argument and emotional persuasion combined with every appearance of sincere conviction by both Grace and Glendon was an experience in environmental evangelism. The present road of America is dark, short sighted, flawed, bound for destruction but there is hope in individual conversion and commitment. Individual salvation and working together as a community of believers was a familiar cord. Also familiar was the portrayal of Alaska Natives.

There seems to be an assumption that if Alaska Natives realize and begin to act on our dependency on the cash economy we are no longer genuine Natives. However, most Americans say if we fail to address our dependency on cash we are not good people - what is to be done? I would not argue in behalf of Kaktovik's leaders. They are capable of making their own defense, if they are at least aware they are being attacked. Instead it seems more important to suggest that Glendon Brunk, Glendons' fellow environmentalists, and perhaps many others need to acknowledge some realities in Alaska Native society.

Alaska Native politicians (and many Native leaders - not always the same) face the same dilemmas all people in decision- making capacities face - there are rarely black and white reasons or choices. Glendon portrayed Prudhoe only in negative terms. During the 1960's and 70's when Prudhoe was being constructed Alaska Natives had no veto power on the project. If by some turn of fate Alaska Natives could have had more say about development in their own backyards (the area conservationists call 'wilderness' is often as remote and foreign to local Natives as say a lawn is to a suburban home owner) many would have nevertheless allowed it. Glendon would argue that is short sighted and greedy (certainly that is the way Kaktovik's leaders, when doing so, are described). Having had the occasion to meet, interview, talk with and listen to a number of prominent Alaska Native leaders. I would say that a few seem definitely short sighted and greedy. Many, however, realize there is no turning back the clock and no easy answers. I doubt many people would want to turn back the clock to precontact Native society. In Northwest Alaska that would mean volunteering to a life where the average life span was perhaps less than 40 years. Traditional life was richly intelligent and constructed by people to take advantage of seasonal abundance. Nevertheless starvation times recurred when animals following the normal population cycles eventually peaked at the same time and/or weather prevented hunting/gathering at crucial times. With the resources present traditional society made tremendous use of the opportunities available.

Today many aspects of modern society have been introduced. If Alaska Natives have the cash, if we have the job opportunities, if we have the training and education some benefits of all these changes may be within our grasp. Too many Alaska Natives don't have the prerequisites.

There is a "catch 22" in how environmentalists, and perhaps others, see Alaska Natives. The problem begins with the continued population growth in rural Alaska. If Alaska Natives continue to subsist primarily on hunting and gathering the impact on animal, plant and fish populations may become objectionable (several Sierra Club members have said this line has already been crossed). However, if Alaska Natives attempt to enter the cash economy as producers then resource development will also have a negative impact on animal, plant and fish population. What is to be done? Reduce the population of Alaska Natives? That has not yet been suggested. If Alaska Natives rely too heavily on what surrounds their communities they are open to criticism. If Alaska Natives become too committed to the cash economy they are also open to criticism by environmentalists for the inevitable consequences of such an economy .

Let me note that environmentalists are not the only non-Native Americans who have, what can only be described as, an odd (odd at least to many Alaska Natives) standard of what "native " is. That is, we are less Native the more we are successful in taking western tools and organizations and using them for the benefit of Alaska Native society (Alaska Natives are seen as thoughtless rubes if we fail in business and as sold out Brooks Brother capitalists if we succeed).

The only real Natives are pristine and pre-European according to many Americans. Environmentalists just seem more bitten by this bug than others. Yet few people would argue Americans are less American because they don't drive buggies or have slaves and today perform surgery with anesthesia, and recognize the right of women to vote. I've never heard people complain or consider the Japanese to be less Japanese because they are no longer politically divided into samurai, merchants, artisans, peasants and royalty. The Japanese are not seen as less Japanese because they now manufacture cars, stereos, and use western medicine. Alaska Natives however are commonly viewed as no longer Native if we look any different than 'Nanook of the North' or the photographs of Edward Curtis. American and Japanese society can modernize and still be American or Japanese. By such a narrow view, Alaska Native society can only freeze in time like the Amish or be considered less Native. It is time to consider why this is so.

I also find it strange on the part of environmentalists like Glendon Brunk that they will push their agenda about what should be done in rural Alaska in East Lansing, Michigan and across the "Lower 48", but admittedly do not go into rural Alaska to talk with the people who live in the "wilderness" they wish to "preserve." I can only wonder for whom the environmentalists are trying to protect the wilderness. Is rural Alaska to be preserved for future relatively wealthy individuals? If this meeting and the photographed individuals in the environmental magazines are any reasonable reflection of general membership it would appear Alaska is to be preserved for a largely white and relatively wealthly audience. It would be interesting to compare the average income of the Sierra Club membership with Alaska Natives. I believe Glendon Brunk would say no, rural Alaska should be preserved for everyone. If he really accepts that Alaska Natives are a legitimate part of rural Alaska then he and his colleagues need to begin a serious dialogue with us about the direction and plans environmentalists have for rural Alaska. In this respect the oil companies at least pretend to be more sensitive to Alaska Natives. They at least humor us with the appearance of interest in our views.

Most of the Parks and Preserves in rural Alaska were created out of a process which began with Section 17 (d) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Over a period of ten years of tough negotiations, with few financial resources, Alaska Natives managed to hold on to about 40 million acres of our own land. The conservationists and environmentalists, had a much larger lobbying power and a more sophisticated political structure. They eventually won over a hundred million acres of rural Alaska as protected land. As a result of ANCSA, the oil companies also received a clear, legal shot at the oil fields and lands for the pipeline.

The division of money, land, and rights had far more to do with economic power than anything so abstract as justice.

Glendon Brunk argued that he did not visit rural Alaska because there was no money in it, as there is apparently in East Lansing. He knows the lessons of economics. He should not fault Kaktoviks' or other Alaska Native village leaders if they have also learned the same lesson.

Ongtooguk, P. (1990). Tundra Times. Anchorage, AK.

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