Native elder tells drilling proponents, 'Chill, baby, chill'

Arctic Village woman lobbies against ANWR and offshore drilling

Posted: Thursday, November 12, 2009

WASHINGTON - Call her "the other Sarah" from Alaska.

The Associated Press File
The Associated Press File

Like former Gov. Sarah Palin, Sarah James, of tiny Arctic Village, is outspoken about oil and gas development in Alaska.

But while Palin calls drilling an answer to the nation's energy needs, James calls it an affront.

An elder of the Gwich'in Nation, James won the Goldman Environmental Prize for extraordinary grass roots leadership on environmental issues. She and other Alaska Natives were in Washington this week to lobby against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on offshore sites in Alaska.

James said drilling for oil threatens the birth place of the porcupine caribou, a sacred figure to the Gwich'in people.

"We are caribou people. It's our clothing, our story, our song, our dance and our food. That's who we are. If you drill for oil here, you are drilling right into the heart of our existence," James said.

Her village of about 150 people is among the first experiencing the devastation of global warming, James said, calling climate change a human rights issue.

James and five other activists - including two from Canada - were in Washington on a trip organized by the Alaska Wilderness League.

The group met with several high-ranking officials from the Obama administration - including Assistant Interior Secretary Tom Strickland and Larry Echohawk, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs - as well as members of the Alaska delegation and a staffer for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Emilie Surrusco, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Wilderness League, said the women made the 5,000 mile trip "to bring a face to the issues their communities are dealing with on a daily basis."

Mae Hank, an Inupiat Tribe member from Point Hope, Alaska, said she lives in fear of an oil spill that could devastate her community. "It would annihilate our culture," she said.

Palin has been critical of climate change legislation.

She has attacked the Obama administration's so-called cap-and-trade plan that would allow industrial sources to buy and sell pollution permits. Palin called it a threat to jobs that would undermine the economic recovery.

"We are ripe for economic growth and energy independence if we responsibly tap the resources that God created right underfoot on American soil. Just as important, we have more desire and ability to protect the environment than any foreign nation from which we purchase energy today," she wrote.

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