Arctic off-shore drilling hits home in Barrow, Alaska

Dispatch from the nation’s northernmost town, a community divided.


As Royal Dutch Shell’s massive drill rig, the Polar Pioneer, chugs its way up the Alaskan coast, the 4,700 residents of Barrow, Alaska, are preparing for a very different event: the annual Nalukataq festival, in which the entire community shares in the bounty of a successful whaling season. Nalukataq is usually a time for celebration, but this year, it’s different. The national controversy that’s unfolded in recent months surrounding Shell’s plans to drill exploratory wells this summer in the Arctic Ocean has cast a shadow over the festival. 

To understand how the debate over drilling the Arctic Ocean is playing out in the place most affected by it, it helps to understand a little bit about Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States. Roughly 76 percent of Barrow families are Inupiat, and whaling is the backbone of their cultural identity. Local sports teams are called the Whalers, and each spring, actual whalers set out on the ice to hunt bowheads from traditional umiaks, or seal-skin boats. 

Yet Barrow is also home to some of the most cutting-edge climate research in the world, and much of the infrastructure, revenue and jobs here are in some way tied to the oil industry. Given the juxtaposition of technology and tradition, it’s perhaps no surprise that the town is divided over Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean. What is surprising is the extent to which the divisions have penetrated the tight-knit whaling community here, driving a wedge between families that have been united for millennia over their dependence on the sea. 

Univ. of Washington graduate student Melinda Webster walks on sea ice and uses a probe to measure snow depth and verify NASA data, near Barrow.
Chris Linder / Univ. of Washington
In the foreground to the right is the front of a seal-skin boat used by the Inupiat for whaling, in Barrow.
Flickr user Terry Feuerborn

I discovered this firsthand when I visited the home of Diana Martin, who recently agreed to let me come over to try her raw whale blubber, or maktak. When I arrived, Diana was sitting in her kitchen, watching a large-screen TV and patiently sewing a wolf pelt into a ruff for a traditional parka. Diana is one of the few master seamstresses left in her community and is among the 18 percent of Inupiat who can speak their native language fluently. She can trace her ancestors back at least five generations, and she knows the stories her ancestors have passed down. Inupiaq oral history stretches so far back it includes tales of hunting wooly mammoths, which went extinct 4,000 years ago. 

Like roughly 99 percent of Inupiat families, Diana raised her five kids on a diet that consisted heartily of whale, caribou, seal and other Native foods. As she and her husband told me this, they worried aloud that a single slip-up on Shell’s part could devastate the offshore environment on which they depend. Diana who generally avoids politics — had to be persuaded not to put up a “Shell go home” banner in her front yard on Nanook St. this year.

Diana’s brother, Jake Adams Sr., is equally connected to subsistence whaling: he holds the prestigious position of being one of just eight whaling captains in Barrow, and much of the community depends on the meat his crew risks life and limb for. But Jake supports Shell’s efforts to drill the Chukchi Sea. He sits on the board of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and is CEO of the North Slope Borough, both of which benefit heavily from taxing oil industry infrastructure. In 2012, after the first (and last) time Shell tried to drill in the Arctic Ocean — a season marred with one mistake after another, culminating in the wreck of Shell’s drilling rig — Adams testified in front of Congress that the people of the North Slope would continue to support Shell’s efforts. He doesn’t hide the fact that his support stems from a “corporate agenda,” but he points out that the same agenda is what propelled Barrow from an impoverished village with raw sewage in the streets to one of the most well-off Native communities in the state.

Jake is the second-oldest of the 12 Adams’ children. Diana is the ninth. They do not discuss drilling at the dinner table. 

The Adams family isn’t alone. Representatives from both sides have convincing arguments, and everyone you talk to in Barrow adds their own twist. The head of a local whaling organization, for instance, tells me that oil money is necessary to fund wildlife research, which will be necessary to sustain Inupiaq culture after oil dries up and disappears — just like the commercial whaling industry of the 1800s did. Another whaler argues that, to the contrary, putting a drilling rig in the Arctic Ocean could effectively kill Inupiaq culture.

Public art in Barrow, Alaska.
Flickr user Johannes Zielcke

Everywhere you go in Barrow, educational posters describe the 12 core Inupiaq values. One of them — paaqlaktautainniq  literally means “to avoid conflict.” For millennia, paaqlaktautainniq wasn’t just a vague directive; it was critical to survival. It enabled families to work together to haul 75-ton animals from the dark ocean and to endure Arctic winters in close quarters. Today, as the issue of offshore drilling splits the Inupiaq community in half, both sides mourn the loss of this unity. “It is so troubling,” Jake Adams wrote in an op-ed in the Arctic Sounder, “to find the deep divisions within our community being played out in such a public arena.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent for High Country News. 

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