Obstacles in the Path of the Inquiry
Obstacles to research, all of them different but related to a common sourceâexpropriation and domination by federal government, state government, and oil companiesâwere encountered in each village. Because of their severity, as well as their importance to this study, I will discuss them here.
The preparation for this primary, comparative analysis began just as other Alaskan contract research did, I imagine. The Alaska OCS's Social and Economic Studies Projects (SESP) office defined the scope of the research, requested and reviewed proposals, and awarded the contract in October 1981 to the John Muir Institute, without soliciting village participation. The Mineral Management Service's Alaska OCS Region assumed that the research would be conducted, regardless of the wishes of the villagers in the villages that eventually would be studied.
In the early 1080s, the SESP office was staffed by persons essentially untrained in the social sciences and inexperienced in conducting research among Eskimos. Persons who had no research experience and who held master's degrees in business administration, business economics (commerce), coastal zone management, and sociology joined with a few persons whose formal educations terminated with a bachelor's degree to administer an annual research budget totaling Well over one million dollars.
It is my impression that the Alaska OCS Region, as managed in 1981 and 1982, was similar to social and economic research offices at other regulatory agencies throughout the nation then and now. The individual and collective ignorance of the studies office staff in the early 1080s was, itself, a major obstacle to overcome. The record of our contractor-researcher relations is tedious. I will spare the reader the details, although I provide an example of bureaucratic decision making and its aftermath to convey some impression of the situation.
Before doing so, it is fair and correct to report that by the mid-1980s, some high-ranking officials at Alaska's OCS office recognized that some big changes had to be made in the SESP office. A new chief was appointed, and he soon replaced older staff members with two persons, both with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Each had extensive research experience among Native Americans. Things could not change overnight inasmuch as some projects of little scientific value were under way and others were out for bid. But by 1986, a very different social studies section was exercising dose controls over several important social science projects. In my view, the benefits to Alaska's natives from the research that is currently under way because of the reorganization and restaffing of the SESP office will be considerable.
But now a caveat from experience, government bureaus being what they are: today's gains can be lost more abruptly than they were gained. An office can be gutted if a couple of key persons leave government service or even move up the administrative career ladder. The two most competent persons in the studies office in the early 1980s left government service before the research was completed on which this book is based. Things got worse for the project rather than better because of these changes.
Let me return to my example of agency obstacles in 1982. As principal investigator, I proposed to MMS that funds be allocated so that several weeks prior to the initiation of research, the villages could be visited, the research could be discussed, and village approval and cooperation could be sought. The funds were denied. However, the director of the Alaska OCS Region informed the villagers of the study through letters sent in late November to the leaders of several village and regional organizations. Some village organizations did not receive letters. Some native organizations, on receipt of the letters, replied with queries, but they did not receive responses. Unknown to the researchers, the letters arrived shortly after public hearings on federal Oil Lease Sale 57, affecting the western Norton Sound-eastern Bering Sea region, had taken place in Unalakleet and in other villages of the region. Both Unalakleet and Gambell would be affected by the lease sale.
We did not know how the hearings were conducted, or how the activities of oil companies and of federal and state agencies were perceived by natives, but we were soon to learn. The following example from the village of Unalakleet will help the reader understand the meaning of "obstacles to research."
In October 1981, the Alaska OCS Region held a public hearing in Unalakleet to gain public comments on the draft of the final environmental impact report that the office had prepared in anticipation of Oil Lease Sale 57. As is Eskimo custom, village leaders and residents planned for a twelve-hour, or perhaps even longer, public discussion of the report. Eskimos analyze well, speak elegantly, are articulate, and desire consensus. They expected a long session, because that is their custom in public deliberation but also because they had so many questions that they wanted aired.
Natives wanted to know how industry or the government would control oil spills during gale winds, when visibility is zero for weeks, or when oil is locked in ice and pushed by high winds and currents. They wanted to know what, in the event of an oil spill that settled on the kelp beds, would happen to the commercial herring fishery and to the seals, which the villagers hunt for subsistence and which follow the herring into their spawning grounds near shore. They wanted to know what would happen to the kelp, on which herring spawn, and which, as roe-on-kelp, is collected for subsistence and also sold commercially. They wanted to know what would happen to the clams, mussels, and crabs, which waterfowl, walrus, and villagers eat, if those marine invertebrates had to be extracted through, or if they were covered by, oil. They wanted to know the consequences to the villagers if herring, seals, and birds were oil tainted. They were particularly nettled because the report did not mention bearded seals (ugruk ) as resident to eastern Norton Sound, since they are the preferred seal hunted by Unalakleet residents. They wanted to know what would happen to the Unalakleet River if oil developments occurred nearby. For instance, would the salmon fishery be destroyed? What would happen to housing and housing prices? How would residents cope with inflation? And so on.
Much to the dismay of the villagers, the public hearing produced neither discussion nor answers, village leaders later told us. Villagers had expected to challenge the report and get answers to the larger issues that they felt threatened their subsistence economy and their way of life. The MMS representatives listened to testimony but did not respond. According to villagers in attendance, the representatives conveyed the impression that they were bored, perhaps disdainfully so, and flew out of the village after two hours of testimony.
Soon thereafter, village leaders were notified about MMS's intention to conduct an analysis of the importance of naturally occurring, renewable resources to Unalakleet society and culture and of the consequences to both if there were disruptions to the harvest of those resources.
The broad question that was posed to us was, "Are naturally occurring, renewable resources important to the villagers in Unalakleet, Gambell, and Wainwright?" The short answer is yes. Why is it, then, that when initially proposed to the villages by letter from the OCS Region in late November 1981 and by a following letter from me in late December 1981, this study was disapproved by the village of Unalakleet, mistrusted by the village of Gambell, and essentially ignored by the village of Wainwright?
The people of Unalakleet have been angered and embittered by public hearings, and in the recent past, they claimed to have seen several researchers move in and out of Unalakleet, conducting studies in haste. According to several knowledgeable hunters and fishers in Unalakleet, the researchers sought villager help, then reported only what they had been told by village residentsâbringing nothing new to the research or the analysis, hence not teaching the villagers anything newâand, in instances such as the environmental impact statement for sale 57, issuing research reports about their region that contained inaccurate information. Several village leaders clearly expressed the view that reports contracted by state and federal agencies have not met their expectations. Some reports had the potential to harm Unalakleet residents, and many of those residents believed that certain of the fish and game quotas and seasons established by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game specifically underestimated prior use rates in Unalakleet as well as current needs.
So a very puzzling contradiction obtains. By early 1982, Unalakleet residents had been studied with regularity, but there are only a few tallies in government reports covering many more villages than Unalakleet to suggest that there have been any studies of the Unalakleet community at all. The connection between the studies and the regulations imposed by state and federal governments, as well as the threats to resources and community integrity by large-scale oil developments, has been made by the residents of Unalakleet.
It is not surprising that the people of Unalakleet told us that they are tired of being studied and that they challenge the presumption that their needs can be defined by, and that the satisfaction of those needs can be regulated by, outsiders. It is not surprising, either, that village leaders and other residents thought the sole purpose of the study that we proposed to conduct was to help the Alaska OCS Region to obtain information that would allow oil leases to be sold in Norton Sound.
The study was to commence in the three villages on February 1, 1982. The Unalakleet City Council and the IRA government did not swing into action until about a fortnight prior to the start-up date. First at the IRA meeting and the following night at a meeting of the city council, each attended by over a hundred people, the leaders of those governing bodies called for rejection of the study. Their requests were sustained unanimously.
The IRA president relayed these decisions by letter dated January 29, 1982, to the funding agency and to the John Muir Institute. The mails were slow, and notice was not received until my associate, Jean Maxwell, arrived in the village and was informed by the mayor, the chairman of the Unalakleet Native Corporation, and the president of the IRA of the villager's decisions. I spoke by phone to each of the village leaders, explaining how we bid on, had been awarded, and would direct the study. I disclaimed any connection to oil companies or any connection to MMS's Alaska OCS Region office, claiming only that I and the John Muir Institute insisted on conducting research independent of government or corporation direction.
I arranged to meet with Unalakleet leaders to discuss the research and the feasibility of conducting it. I also sent copies of publications of past research that had been conducted by me and by Maxwell. The leaders met with me and agreed to reconsider their decision. Maxwell repaired to Nome for a cooling-off period but soon found herself in Gambell, helping us to get that project going after its very rocky start there. I met with the Unalakleet leaders again in March, after they had thought about the issue. At the second meeting, we were invited in with the promise of assistance in conducting the research, and on April 1, Maxwell took up residence in Unalakleet and resumed the research.
The actions of the villagers are particularly poignant. First, they insisted that research would not be conducted without their informed consent and their participation. Second, and equally important, the villagers spoke directly to the significance that they attach to subsistence resources. Acute concern was voiced about the study because of the presumed connections among the John Muir Institute, the Alaska OCS Region, and the transnational oil corporations. Moreover, deep concern was voiced about the study because its subjectâsubsistence resources and their usesâis so much a part of villagers' lives, as it has been from time immemorial. Their experiences with resource studies have shown them that these studies are inaccurate and misrepresentative to some degree and that they never convey a recognizable picture of the place of subsistence activities in village life. The village leaders clearly did not want to contribute to a study whose errors of omission and commission could contribute to government decisions on offshore gas and oil development that would adversely affect their own and their children's lives.
The study was reconsidered and approved in large part because villagers wanted to have subsistence activities and their community portrayed accurately. For their own protection in court, if necessary, although they were pessimistic about judicial relief, village leaders wanted to be sure that an empirically warranted ethnographic account would be presented of subsistence activities and the roles of naturally occurring resources within Unalakleet and of the significant symbols, or shared meanings, of the Unalakleet community in regard to those resources and activities.
Village leaders could not, nor did they even try to, control participation in the study or determine the course of its outcome. They agreed to critique draft reports and to provide information to correct empirical and analytical errors. The documents had to benefit them as well as the OCS and the environmental documentation process. As it turned out, those leaders were far too busy with their obligations to hunt and fish for their families, to fish commercially, and to lead community government organizations to do more than provide counsel and direction when such was needed. They were cooperative and helpful but not collaborators.
We soon learned that approval to conduct the study was not tantamount to a willingness on the part of the residents to participate in the study. There were many obstacles to overcome in Unalakleet and elsewhere.
As we packed our bags and headed for Nome in March, our field researcher in Gambell decided to quit. During February, he had not received any assistance, let alone cooperation, from village leaders or other residents, save for a person who rented him a house. At that point, we had to quell the Gambell villagers' doubts about the study and enlist their support for its continuation.
The issues that animated Gambell's leaders were the threats of federal intervention, state intervention, and oil company activities. They feared that their island would be expropriated and the land and sea would be fouled. They felt beleaguered by studies and reports that did them no good when state and federal decisions were made to regulate the animals of the sea or the oil and gas reserves beneath it.
Ron Little, Jean Maxwell, and I went to Gambell, Ron and I at the request of Gambell's leaders. In a series of meetings with village leaders, including a command performance before all members of the boards of directors and councils of the city government, the native corporation, and the IRA government, I was asked to explain the value of the research, of our presence, and of their answers.
Initially, we made little progress, although we learned the reasons for hostility toward the study, which were expressed, simply, as noncompliance. At that public meeting, in which I was the defendant, or so it seemed, we reached some mutual understanding about what the research would be. We explained that if our data were not used, or were used improperly in the environmental impact statements that were to be prepared by the federal government, we would assist the village in the federal courts if they wanted to bring suit.
The villagers proved to be tough-minded and also frightened by the future prospects. After an hour or so of questions, village leaders began to focus on the legal avenues open to them if they were to protect their island and their millennia-old subsistence economy. They wanted to know whether they could extricate themselves from ANCSA and from the village profit corporations that they were forced to create. They wondered if they could reconstitute IRA governments as they were prior to 1971: institutions possessing executive, legislative, and judicial powers. And they wanted to return St. Lawrence Island to federal trust status to avert the possibility of its alienation. They asked how they could free themselves of ADF&G and federal controls over wildlife. Our ignorance did not allow us to answer all their questions.
I solicited legal opinions for the villagers, but even before doing so, the village leaders decided to cooperate with the
study. Natives joined our research team, as did Lynn Robbins to conduct research and direct the native researchers.
Wainwright villagers had already experienced many indirect social impacts from oil development at Prudhoe Bay when we arrived. The social costs of these experiences had been high, although the obvious advantages in jobs, community infrastructure, service deliveries, and the like, had also been high. The mixture of deleterious and beneficial consequences made for confusion and anger. Change had occurred rapidly and dramatically, fueling insecurity about the present, as unearned income and transfer projects of various types waxed and waned, and nourishing anxiety about the future of dwindling oil reserves (hence dwindling tax revenues available to the North Slope Borough) and the consequences for village and regional corporations from ANCSA's provisions for 1991.
The nonnative population, mostly transient, had grown to 22 percent of the village total. Experts of various sortsâsome delivering social services, some conducting research, some seeking to conduct business, many interested in oil extraction (onshore and offshore), some working for regulatory agenciesâdropped into the village for short visits. The increased numbers of outsiders and the alien influences that they wielded threatened Wainwright life. Strangers were met with suspicion and some resistance. We were met with heavy doses of both. The obstacle in Wainwright was getting the research headed in the fight direction.
Whereas Unalakleet initially denied us entry and Gambell offered no assistance until we met its collective challenge to defend ourselves by making an acceptable case for the study, Wainwright and the NSB officials, with one exception, treated us with benign neglect, from beginning to end. One month after the study was under way, the NSB science advisor, a non-native professional, demanded to know what we were up to, why we were up to it, and why he was not consulted so that he could give us his approval or rejection. Our full replies to his queriesâincluding the information that the NSB had been contacted by several letters, telephone calls, and one visitâand a request for assistance went unanswered. We learned, rather casually and not from the NSB science advisor, that the borough had commissioned its own study of Wainwright subsistence one year earlier, to be made by Richard Nelson, whose previous work on ice hunting at Wainwright is a classic (Nelson 1969). We were stumbling over Nelson's tracks.
Wainwrighters felt that they had been "studied to death." And they also felt that research conducted among them benefits the researcher, the organization that funds it, and the oil companies but not the community. Sometimes researchers were met with hostility, but usually they were simply ignored.
Obstacles to Gaining Help From Village Leaders
Leaders in Unalakleet and Gambell were not able to collaborate fully with us. They desired to, but they could not. They are different from other village residents because they work long hours to guide their village institutions. But they are the same as other village residents, too: they hunt, fish, and extract wild plants and eggs for subsistence; they maintain and repair their motorized equipment and subsistence technology; and they are underemployed. Isolation, in conjunction with full rounds of subsistence activities and the sharing of the bag or catch that accompanies them (the attributes that are respected and desired), makes it difficult for them to be fully informed. Moreover, the structure of dependency in native Alaska is such that natives will undoubtedly stay uninformed and powerless. They are powerless over federal and state decisions and most oil company activities; they are unable to acquire much of the information possessed by oil companies; and they lack funds to acquire information or competent legal defense.
The Specific Obstacle: Subsistence
Our study focused on the topics that are peculiarly sensitive in the arctic and subarctic today: naturally occurring, renewable resources, subsistence harvests of those resources, and the sharing and other uses of them.
The subsistence studies at the three villages proved to be more difficult and more sensitive than other topics funded by the Alaska OCS Region. According to many contract researchers in Alaska, they could not be done. And according to natives, they should not be done.
State regulations on the commercial harvests of fish in all Alaskan waters and the subsistence harvests of fish in some Alaskan waters; regulations on moose, caribou, deer, and bird harvests; and the studies conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to monitor and regulate the wild species are all seen as direct threats to the cornerstone of the natives' social lives, their very existence. Federal regulation of marine mammals has caused particular concern and bitterness among North Slope and Bering Strait communities.
Obstacles Encountered While Under Way
Eskimo villagers carefully protect the privacy of their personal and family lives. Village life is carried on at such close quarters, often with heavy demands on people's emotional energies and their physical and material resources, that individuals and families create and maintain, as best they can, a bit of private space for performing daily activities and for grappling with unusual circumstances as they arise.
Subsistence activities are family, friendship, and clan centered. They are times of busy preparation and labor cooperation and also times of pure enjoyment, eagerly anticipated. Outsiders should join them only when invited. Moreover, many tasks require courage, such as embarking astride snowmachines on a 200-mile caribou hunt in -20Â°F temperatures and high winds. Other tasks in addition require considerable preparation and agility, such as whale hunting and walrus hunting. For example, a person does not want to get his feet tangled in the harpoon and float lines that are being pulled from a boat at breakneck speeds by animals to which they are attached, who range in weight from 3,000 to 60,000 pounds. Outsiders, especially academic researchers, do not easily instill the confidence that they can help in many crucial subsistence tasks, and until they are invited along, they can only hear about them, rather than see them performed or participate in them.
It took time to gain sufficient confidence to be invited on subsistence harvest trips in Gambell, Wainwright, and Unalakleet and even more time to conduct family interviews. Indeed, as we plunged into our research projects, the responses from natives in Wainwright and Unalakleet were similar to the responses we initially had received from the Gambell and Unalakleet leadership, namely, an unwillingness to participate in the study that often suggested defensiveness, if not hostility.
Several times, the research teams found themselves trying to dispel the notion that they were associated with the oil companies or with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For various purposes, representatives of both groups were in and out of the villages around the time the studies were beginning.
Government Regulatory Authorities as Obstacles
The federal government and the Alaska state government affect Alaskan native communities in many ways but especially through federal oil and gas lease sales and through fish and wildlife regulations, including harvest quotas. In all villages, the residents resent state-imposed and federal-imposed rules to regulate wildlife for commercial and subsistence purposes.
An example of the willingness of natives to violate regulations under some circumstances is well represented by an incident involving a bowhead whale. The bowhead is the most revered animal, symbolically, and the most desired animal for its "taste" among Alaska's coastal native villages. They seldom migrate through Norton Sound, but in 1980, several did. Hunters from the village of Shaktoolik, close to Unalakleet, led by an experienced whaler from the North Alaskan whaling community of Barrow, killed and landed a bowhead whale. This violated the regulations of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Natives in all villages fear the disruptions to harvests that may occur from offshore as well as onshore oil- and gas-related activities, including staging areas and recreational uses. They assume that such activities, both onshore and offshore, will affect naturally occurring species. The growth of the public sector, alone, including population growth, will affect native access to harvests, they aver.
This is the context into which we stepped. We did not have to create any obstacles for the research. The political economy beat us to it.