The GOP Tax Bill Could Forever Alter Alaska’s Indigenous Tribes

By authorizing oil drilling in Alaska’s vast Arctic wilderness, the bill could enrich Native tribes—or destroy their way of life.

A group of people butcher a bowhead whale on a beach.
Inupiat subsistence hunters carve and divide a bowhead whale near Barrow, Alaska. (Gregory Bull / AP)

When Bernadette Demientieff was in high school, she gave up her heritage. Demientieff is a member of the Gwich’in, an indigenous tribe of roughly 9,000 people that spans north-central Alaska and northern Canada. “The ways of living in this world that are being pushed on our people” got to her, she told me. She moved south to Fairbanks, Alaska, and grew disconnected from her people and their land. She had kids. She grew up.

And then, one day in 2014, something called to her, she says. She was in Arctic Village, a small Gwich’in settlement at the edge of Alaska’s wilderness. She felt the urge to step out onto the tundra. She started walking, up and out of the center of town—and then she turned around and looked: In front of her stretched the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest area of untouched wilderness in the United States. The land, an open expanse of peaks and rivers, spanned hundreds of miles past the horizon to the unseen, icy flat of the Arctic Ocean.

“I started crying and crying,” she said. “And I asked the Creator for forgiveness.”

Now 42, Demientieff is the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. She has spent years trying to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR (pronounced AN-wahr), from oil and gas exploration. That fight suffered a major loss Saturday, the result of lawmakers voting on an expansive and quickly written bill several thousand miles away.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which the Senate passed early Saturday morning, will change federal law on a matter that has little to do with the tax code. The bill authorizes the sale of oil and gas leases in a section of the ANWR on Alaska’s North Slope, the coastal plain that faces the Arctic Ocean. Soon, energy companies will be able to search for—and extract—oil and gas from the frozen tundra.

The Senate bill will now be reconciled with the House version in conference and go to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature.

It brings a quiet end to the battle over whether to drill in the ANWR, one of the longest-running and most acrimonious battles in U.S. environmental history. The question has been embedded in federal law for 40 years, nearly as long as Alaska has been a state.

No one will be more affected by the opening of ANWR than Alaska’s indigenous people, who will live among—and work on—the rigs, drills, and pipelines that would follow the discovery of any oil or gas reserve. The discovery of oil or gas in the region could bring an economic windfall to the subsistence tribes that live on Alaska’s North Slope, the coastal plain that faces the Arctic Ocean. But if a major disaster—like an oil spill or a gas leak—were to occur in the area, it would devastate their only homeland.

The issue still divides villages, counties, and Native nations in Alaska. It also sets tribes with differing claims to Alaska’s North Slope against each other. And both sides tend to assert that the overall public sides with them.

“The majority of Alaskans and majority of Alaksa Natives express their support for [drilling in ANWR]. It’s an issue of economic self-determination for our community,” said Richard Glenn, a member of the Inupiat tribe and the executive vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which owns nearly 5 million acres across Alaska’s northern coast. “This has been the unchanging position of the majority of the residents of our region for more 30 years.”

No recent polling data seems to be available on the issue. But even beyond public opinion, there’s a basic conflict.

The Inupiat live across the North Slope, including within the part of the ANWR that would soon be opened for drilling. Oil exploration already brings jobs and funds infrastructure in their communities. And the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation holds mineral rights to pockets of private land within the ANWR. If oil is discovered there, the corporation and its shareholders—roughly 13,00 members of the Inupiat tribe—could profit from the wealth.

The Gwich’in people, meanwhile, live hundreds of miles south in west-central Alaska. Their regional corporation does not own land on the North Slope. But the Gwich’in are spiritually connected to the porcupine caribou, a herd of more than 160,000 creatures who migrate annually across the U.S. and Canadian tundra. The herd’s calving grounds, the most sacred space to the Gwich’in, lies within the area which could soon be open to drilling. To many of them, drilling in the calving ground isn’t just an attack on the Gwich’in way of life. It’s an attack on the Gwich’in.

The immediate stakes of the fight go back to 1980, when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The law protected more than 67,000 square miles of land (174,000 square km) across Alaska by establishing new national parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas. One part of the law, Section 1002, set aside 2,300 square miles of land (6,070 square km) on Alaska’s North Slope. Though this parcel of land—dubbed the “Section 1002 area”—was made part of the ANWR, Congress did not endow it with full wilderness protections and reserved the right to open it to gas exploration in the future.

Every decade or so, the question of whether to open the 1002 area has made it onto Congress’s agenda. In 2005, the Senate nearly opened ANWR to drilling before a Democratic filibuster turned the tide of public opinion. Ten years earlier, Bill Clinton vetoed a proposal to open ANWR. The closest Congress ever came to completing a deal was 1989, but the Exxon Valdez oil spill intervened, rendering the loosening of fossil-fuel rules in Alaska politically impossible.

While public opinion has always previously halted the opening of the ANWR, in today’s supersaturated news environment, Senate Republicans have slipped the drilling provision into the tax-reform bill without attracting the same outcry. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican of Alaska, made drilling in ANWR a condition of her support for the tax bill, and it has been a de facto part of the legislative package since October.

It’s unclear how Americans feel about the ANWR proposal. A Morning Consult poll in 2014 found that only 50 percent of voters want to drill in the area, even though many more—61 percent—support increasing oil extraction in the United States. Neither a majority of Democrats nor Independents supported drilling.*

A family of polar bears within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Reuters)

The modern history of the Gwich’in people is inseparable from drilling in the ANWR question.

In 1988, Congress began exploring how to open the refuge to drilling. The Gwich’in could not abide the thought. They held their first conference in 150 years, an unprecedented gathering of their people from across the United States and Canada. Demientieff remembers those early meetings—sitting on the floor as a little girl, hearing the fear and anguish of the adults. The elders gave her little tasks to keep her involved, like passing out crackers and dried fish to the members, as angry, passionate arguments raged around them.

No one ever sat her down and told her about the preciousness of ANWR. But just by growing up among the Gwich’in, she learned the importance of her people’s generations-old circuit through the land, in pursuit of the porcupine-caribou herd. Every year, more than 160,000 porcupine caribou move across the high Arctic tundra. Their journey starts in the meadows around the Porcupine River, which flows through modern-day Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. Then the caribou come north, through the vast, peak-rimmed plains of the ANWR, until they arrive at their calving ground on Alaska’s coastal plane, at the foot of the Arctic Ocean—and in the Section 1002 area.

The Gwich’in have followed the caribou across much of this odyssey for tens of thousands of years. But they knew not to enter the calving ground, which is called Iizhik Gwats’an Gwnadaii Goodlit, “the sacred place where life begins.” Even in the famines which followed first contact with the West, the Gwich’in did not trespass on the calving ground, Demientieff told me. “The porcupine caribou herd and the Gwich’in people are one,” she said. “I’m not just making up numbers when I say that we migrated with them for 20,000 years. These caribou have been here for 2 million years.”

Caribou aren’t the only animals that live in the ANWR. Polar bears, brown bears, and black bears all trundle through its streams and meadows. Lynx, moose, Arctic fox, walrus, and ringed seal lounge on the Arctic coast. And migratory birds—including merlins, sandpipers, and peregrine falcons—summer in the reserve before returning to the continental United States for the winter.

A porcuine-caribou herd in the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, with the Brooks Range mountains in the distance to the south (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Even though the bill passed, Demientieff and a group of Gwich’in and Inupiat people who oppose the drilling plan to visit Washington, D.C., later this month, on the 57th anniversary of the creation of ANWR. They will drum and dance and sing and visit with members of Congress.

But they will shun Lisa Murkowski, their senator. The Murkowski family has pushed to open the ANWR as long as they’ve worked in politics. Frank Murkowski served in the U.S. Senate for more than 20 years. He led successive efforts to open ANWR to oil drilling, all of which failed. When he was elected governor in 2002, he resigned from the Senate and named the majority leader of the Alaska House of Representatives—his daughter, Lisa—to his old seat. She now chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The ANWR provisions were widely seen as the chit Murkowski needed to support the tax bill. “For Murkowski to just turn as soon as they put that in there—it’s like they’re doing that just for her vote, and she’s falling for it,” Demientieff argues.

Protest isn’t the only way she is marking the anniversary. Demientieff is expecting a fourth grandchild due December 6, the anniversary of ANWR’s creation. She has five children, all Gwich’in or Gwich’in-Yupik.** Her 9-year-old daughter, Lexine, is part of Our Children’s Trust, the group of kids suing the federal government for its lack of a climate policy. Demientieff calls her “my little Gwich’in warrior.”

I asked Demientieff what it would feel like to know drilling would go through at ANWR. “Just when you said that right now, I got a big lump in my throat,” she told me. “We shouldn’t have to be fighting for our human rights. We’re not asking for anything, we’re not asking for money, we just want to continue our identity as Gwich’in. And that identity—a big, huge part of it is the porcupine-caribou herd.”

Men in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, prepare to head to work in the oil and gas industry in 2005. (Al Grillo / AP)

The history of drilling in ANWR arises from the history of the state of Alaska. When Alaska was a territory, the federal government owned virtually all of its land. Upon granting it statehood in 1959, the government transferred about a quarter of Alaska’s total area to the state government. The next year, President Dwight Eisenhower also established federal protections on the area that would become ANWR.

Eleven years later, the U.S. government transferred more federal land—about a third of the state’s area—to Native tribes in Alaska. But it didn’t transfer the land to them directly. Instead, it established regional corporations to hold the land for tribal shareholders.

Glenn manages land and natural resources for one of those companies, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which owns acreage across the northern coast. The corporation has fought for the right to drill for years, and he marveled at how speedily it had been approved now. “It’s a faster-moving issue than it has been in the past 30 years,” he said.

The Republican tax bill assumes that drilling in ANWR will generate $1 billion in federal revenue over the next 10 years. During its last survey of the region, the U.S. Geological Survey said that 12 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil may lie beneath the reserve.

Glenn brushed away the estimates. “The USGS has published potential reserves, and I’m sure the industry explorers have their own number,” he told me. “I’m a geologist by training, and the only thing that proves a reserve is a drill bit.”

What was important, he said, was that the process of looking for oil was allowed to continue. It was this search for oil that drove the Inupiat communities on the North Slope. “Our region basically depends on continued safe, responsible exploration and development,” he told me. “It’s improved the quality of life in our community only because we’ve been able to tax the presence of the oil industry in our region.”

He pointed to Point Hope, a town of roughly 630 people on the western tip of Alaska’s Lisburne peninsula. “The runway there, the roads, the schools, and the ability to flush a toilet are only because of the presence of taxable revenue in our region. We’re all native folks, and we depend on our environment for our sustenance. But we also depend on having communities to come home to,” he said.

Glenn grew up in the small city of Utqiaġvik, commonly known as Barrow, on Alaska’s North Slope. The 54-year-old now lives in Anchorage, but remains active in Inupiat life on the North Slope: He is a subsistence hunter and fisher, and a whaling captain.

He described how he’ll often encounter human skeletons on his hunt—a relic of the time when aging members of a community might wander away from a village or tent in the winter, because they had become too much of a burden to the community. Seeing the skeletons, he said, “means our whole region is sacred land.” But he takes a decidedly pragmatic approach to the holiness of the land. “The environment is just as sacred to us as it is to everyone else, but you know what? We need an airstrip,” he said. “Even the place where we built a sewage lagoon for our village is sacred land—but we needed a sewage lagoon.”

These pieces of infrastructure were not just niceties, but the basis of their community, he told me. “When you get dropped off on the tundra in our region in winter or summer, you’ll never be so happy to find a little bit of infrastructure.”

Glenn believes the region can endure industry in part because it’s done so before. From the 1950s to the 1980s, a chain of U.S. Air Force bases lined the North Slope of Alaska. Together they formed the Distant Early Warning system, a Christmas-light string of installations that linked Alaska to central Greenland, scanning the sky for missiles. Each DEW base brought “power plants and landing strips and people,” says Glenn, but the region persevered. “The animals were there; the animals survived. The people were there; the national psyche survived,” he said. “There’s been industry and Natives all across the coastal plain.” (Glenn is, in part, a product of the DEW line: His dad, a white American, met his Inupiat-Eskimo mom while stationed in the high Arctic.)

I asked Glenn how he, as a geologist who has studied Arctic sea ice, thinks about the climate consequences of extracting oil from the North Slope. “I think about it all the time,” he said. “But the reality is that our region depends on oil and gas development. If we stop exploration, our communities dry up. And [by stopping exploration] we don’t change the climate one bit—it just means someone’s gonna open up the valve somewhere else.”

Arctic Village, Alaska, is at the foot of the Brooks Range, about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. (Al Grillo / AP)

Not all Inupiat approve of drilling in ANWR, however.

“For me, it’s disappointing. We should have an area that we’re able to have added protections, where we don’t change what’s natural to our environment,” said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Inupiat woman and a public-health advocate who lives in Nuiqsut, Alaska.

Nuiqsut, a village of 500, sits on the North Slope, to the west of Prudhoe Bay. It is surrounded by the oil and gas industry. Ahtuangaruak told me that some nights the particulate-matter pollution from the natutal-gas flares gets so bad that she has to stay up all night, tending to people in respiratory distress.

She also mourned what the drilling would do to the caribou. “There are four major herds in our community. Three of the herds are in severe declines. The only herd that isn’t is the porcupine-caribou herds,” she said.

Ahtuangaruak doubted that ASRC always acted in the best interests of the tribe. They were a corporation, she said, and not a government. “Their priority is profitability at all costs. But when we’re tribal people, our priority is our way of life and who we are in the future.”

Sharon Lord also opposes the ANWR plan. She operates a bed-and-breakfast in Kaktovik, Alaska, a village of several hundred people that is the sole settlement within the Section 1002 area. Lord’s father, Robert Thompson, is a famous anti-drilling activist. “This land is beautiful,” she says. “And I like our lifestyle the way it is. I don’t want it to change. If the oil company comes in here, they’ll turn it into an industrial area. ”

She adds: “There’s always a potential for an oil spill. There’s absolutely no way an oil spill can be cleaned up here. It would create an environment of irreversible damage.”

Most of the community, she said, opposed the drilling.

If that’s true, then it hasn’t reached Matthew Rexford, the Inupiat tribal administrator of Kaktovik. In November, he endorsed the drilling plan in testimony to Congress. “The Arctic Inupiat will not become conservation refugees,” he said at the time. “We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park, which literally guarantees us a fate with no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence and no hope for the future of our people.”

He delivered those remarks sitting next to Richard Glenn. Weeks later, back in Anchorage, Glenn encouraged me to “find something to help you sort the wheat from the chaff” on the emotion behind the ANWR drilling plan.

“The habit of journalists tends to be to find Native folks on both sides of the issue, and leave it to the reader to decide,” he said. “It would be nice if we could rise above that and say, what do those folks closest to the issue think?”

* This article previously misstated the proportion of Democrats and Independents that opposed drilling.

** This article previously misstated the tribal identity of Demientieff’s children. We regret the errors.