Marco Werman’s Christmas week conversation with Jonathan Mazower of Survival International about the importance of real-life reindeer for many northern people brought a flashback to my own trip to the far north 15 years ago to report on reindeer (also known as caribou), oil, native people and a rapidly changing Arctic for the public radio program Living on Earth.
It was my first visit to Alaska, and took me farther away from “civlization” than I had ever been, and it had a profound impact on how I see and experience the world. It also provided a searing reminder of a reporting lesson that anyone aspiring to make a mark in journalism needs to learn and remember: Keep your mind open to unexpected opportunities, and never be afraid to ditch your plan or even your material if something better presents itself.
I was heading to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with a small group of US House members, and we stopped off along the way at Arctic Village, a tiny outpost about 200 miles north of Fairbanks and just south of the refuge that was home to a small community of Gwitch’in Indians.
We were greeted there by town elders, treated to a ceremony of traditional dancing and singing, and provided opportunities to interview elders and activists about their campaign against oil drilling in ANWR, which they were concerned would disrupt the migration route of the Porcupine caribou herd, on which they depended heavily for their survival.
When the official proceedings were all done I thought I had what I needed for a nice scene evoking the life and ways of the Gwitch’in, and the importance to them of the caribou, and I relaxed with the rest of the group to talk informally and wait for the smaller bush planes that would take us up over the Brooks Range and down to the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean.
Then a Gwitch’in man emerged out of the crowd, introduced himself as Kenneth Frank, and asked me to accompany him across the village on his ATV to his home. I was hesitant–the plane was already late and I’d been told by our group leader not to stray far. And like I said, I thought I had what I’d come for. I didn’t want to miss my plane or hold up the group. But Kenneth wouldn’t take no for an answer. And he reminded me of the obvious–this was a tiny town, I couldn’t help but hear my plane, and it wasn’t going to leave without me. Especially since it was late June, north of the Arctic Circle. Even if the planes could only fly in the daytime, it was always daytime here this time of year.
So I hopped on and Kenneth took me to his house on the outskirts of town, about five minutes away. We parked his ATV outside the door of his simple, one-story house, went inside and were immediately overwhelmed with a heavy, meaty smell. His wife Caroline was cooking a caribou heart for dinner.
Elsewhere, caribou hide parkas hung on hooks. Snowshoes laced with caribou sinews were stacked against a wall. Kenneth pulled out a box of hunting equipment–knives, traps, lures–all made of caribou parts. Even the tools to hunt caribou were made from caribou. The many parts of the caribou were woven through nearly every part of their lives, from food to clothing to music. Virtually nothing went to waste. And Kenneth and Caroline told me that caribou underlay nearly every part of the Gwitch’ins’ culture–a very fragile culture, which they told me would be put at even greater risk if oil drilling in ANWR disturbed the caribou, which studies had strongly suggested it would.
What I had seen and heard back at the community center was a lovely and skillful performance of Gwitch’in culture, and strong, poished arguments for the importance of a healthy caribou herd in ANWR and against oil drilling. It would’ve made a fine scene in the radio doc I was planning to produce. But what I experienced in Kenneth and Caroline’s home was the lived experience of a family whose very existence was inextricable from the caribou. It was real life, not a performance, not part of a lobbying campaign. I felt stupid for not immediately jumping at Kenneth’s invitation, and grateful for his insistence. And when I went home to produce the documentary, the Gwitch’in section was all Kenneth and Caroline. I didn’t use a second of tape from the official program. And of course I still got on that plane.
It’s a lesson I try to relay to every reporter I send out in to the field and that I remind myself of whenever I get out of from behind my desk for my own reporting. And it’s a lesson for my non-working life as well. Sure, keep your wits about you, but–Be open to the unexpected. Don’t get unnecessarily hung up on plans and protocol. Reach for that outstretched hand–you never know where it might lead you.
Marco’s reindeer interview was also a reminder for me of how slow we are to change our ways when it comes to the “economic development” imperative, and the terrible choices people often face between tradition and “progress.”
The other part of my reporting project on that 1997 trip north was a companion documentary on oil and Eskimos. In the last decade or so, the Arctic has experienced the most extreme warming of any place on the planet. Ice is melting, permafrost is thawing, the habitats and migration routes of animals that native communities depend on are being altered, towns are slumping into the ground and falling into the sea. Cultures, communities, ecosystems and entire hemispheric weather patterns are at stake.
This process of change was already underway even 15 years ago, when I visited Eskimo communities wrestling with the benefits and costs of oil drilling on Alaska’s North Slope. Scientists knew it. The Eskimos themselves knew it. Even a few politicians knew it, including Bruce Babbitt, the US Interior Secretary at the time, whom I interviewed about the connection between oil drilling and climate change right there on the tundra.
But as a society, we couldn’t say no to petroleum development there back then, and we still can’t say no today. Even though there’s a direct and obvious connection between the oil and gas we pump out from beneath the tundra and the sea and the warming atmosphere that’s rapidly transforming life in the far north. We know it, we understand it, and yet we continue to do it. Because there is a real benefit to it. Because we think we can minimize the harm, or that the tradeoffs are worth it. Because we’ve convinced ourselves that at least for now, there are no alternatives.
It was terrible to see back then the wrenching contradictions between the undeniable benefits that oil and oil wealth had brought to North Slope Eskimo communities and the very real damage getting and burning all that oil was doing to the region’s environment and local traditional culture, and it’s terrible now to think about how much starker those contradictions have become in the 15 years since.
One of the most exhilarating moments of my entire two-week reporting trip to Alaska that year was climbing through a hole in the tundra with an Eskimo woman named Dora Ita, down a ladder descending through 3+ feet of soil into a hollowed out vault carved out of the permafrost below, filled with frozen geese, caribou parts and arctic char. It was an ice cellar, Eskimos’ traditional method for storing their harvests from the short Arctic summers through the long, frigid Arctic winter.
Earlier this year I read about how, as the Arctic permafrost thaws and slumps, ice cellars around the region are caving in. I remembered my visit with Dora and her family–via an oil-fueled helicopter, felt tremendously fortunate to have been able to experience the other-worldliness of an ice cellar, and felt a tiny personal loss at the news. But I also realized I could never come close to knowing the loss that the Eskimos themselves feel as the only world they’ve ever known melts, slumps and disappears around them.