ARCTIC VILLAGE - Interior Secretary Gale Norton got a polite welcome and a pointed message Monday when she visited this isolated Gwich'in Athabascan village 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
During a 4 1/2-hour meeting at the community hall, elders and tribal leaders made clear their opposition to oil drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Gwich'in Natives fear that oil development will hurt the Porcupine caribou herd on which their people have subsisted for thousands of years.
"We want to continue this way of life here. We need to protect what we have, which includes the caribou," said Evon Peter, the young tribal chief of Arctic Village.
Norton visited the refuge in late March, when it was covered with snow. Her visit this week fulfills her promise to return in the summer and to gather more views on ANWR development. She was greeted this time with hazy sunshine and temperatures in the 60s.
"It means a lot to me to be able to learn about your history and culture, and what's important to you," Norton told the 60 people who had gathered in the rough-hewn log community hall.
Those at the meeting said they were grateful Norton had made the long trip to this village of 150 people in the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. "Our people are happy to have you on our land," Peter said.
Norton listened to caribou songs, watched caribou dancers, and sat quietly as speaker after speaker talked about the importance of the caribou to Athabascan culture.
"We've lived off this herd for thousands of years. We know how they react to human intrusion," said Faith Gemmill of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, formed 13 years ago to preserve Gwich'in culture.
"All of our elders told us if the calving grounds are destroyed, our future is gone," she said.
Elder Jonathon Solomon told Norton that poor salmon runs in recent years make protecting the caribou more important than ever.
"Everything is changing, and not for the good, but for the bad," Solomon said. "We don't want nothing else. We just want what we have."
Chief Mary Rose Gramboa of the neighboring village of Venetie said the survival of Gwich'in culture was dependent on the caribou.
"We cannot compromise the right of our future generation," Gramboa said.
The tribal leaders also spoke of the need for more money from the federal government for housing, health care, sanitation, education and alcohol treatment. Norton's far-flung department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
While Norton listened, she gave no indication that she would back away from efforts to open the refuge to drilling. She was accompanied on her trip by two longtime supporters of ANWR development recently hired as her Alaska assistants.
Former state Sen. Drue Pearce is Norton's senior adviser for Alaska affairs in Washington, D.C. Cam Toohey will represent the secretary in Alaska. He's been lobbying for ANWR development for the state-supported Arctic Power group since 1996.
After spending the night in Bettles, Norton is flying over the refuge today and visiting the North Slope and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. She has said she wants to see what type of footprint new drilling methods leave on the landscape.