The Cafe du Parc at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington is bustling with D.C. tourists and buttoned-down business travelers.
I’m with a different kind of guest. Caroline Cannon, an Inupiat from Point Hope, Alaska, population 700, is this year’s North American Goldman Prize winner. The 55-year-old grandmother of 26 won the environmental award for her part in a campaign to stop the oil-drilling rush in the Arctic.
Wearing bracelets made of whale teeth and ivory, she describes the subsistence living her people eke out in the Chukchi Sea, their reliance on the bowhead whale, walrus and bearded seal for food, clothing and jewelry.
It’s a fascinating life for someone like me who relies on the subway, keyboard and smartphone. Still, what does she tell people who say: We need the oil?
“We didn’t create this problem, it’s the consumers,” Cannon says, noting the contrast between the images on my laptop of her remote Alaskan village and the Cafe du Parc clientele, the Pennsylvania Avenue traffic outside. “These are two different worlds.”
Cannon has been the face and voice of her Inupiat community in hundreds of government and industry meetings, making the case for her people and their connection to the Chukchi Sea.
“I know there’s a need, but please, don’t be practicing it in my backyard,” she says. “We have to be careful how we do it. I don’t want my great-grandchildren to read about my culture in a library.”
She and a coalition of environmental groups managed to stop the drilling in a number of proposed gas and oil leases in 2009, when a federal court ruled that the impact on the marine environment had not been adequately studied.
“I was flooded with tears,” says Cannon, remembering that victory.
Unfortunately the push to drill is strong, and backed by enormous stakes. When Shell Oil purchased leasing rights in the Chukchi for $2.1 billion in 2008, Executive Vice President David Lawrence declared that Alaska has “the potential to become a new heartland for Shell.”
The Department of the Interior estimates that there are 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This year, the federal government has approved Shell’s spill-response plans, clearing a major hurdle for the company to begin exploratory wells in the summer.
“Apparently Shell has convinced them that there is a technology to clean an oil spill in the Arctic, but they’ve never proven that fact,” Cannon says. “They have not tested, and I wouldn’t want it to be tested in my backyard. When I say ‘my,’ I’m referring to my grandkids, the 26 grandkids that I have.”
On Thin Ice
Oil spills are a potential threat, but climate change is already affecting the Inupiat hunting grounds.
“We see it. Two years ago we weren’t able to pitch our tent out there (on thin ice), and safety was an issue. I’m hearing that we are able this season and I’m anxious to go back,” says Cannon. “It’s so meaningful and so precious when you’re out there.”
Environmentalists might question supporting a cause that centers on killing endangered whales, but times have changed.
“I guess back in the day when my parents were alive, 20 or 30 years ago, if they heard about the environmental groups, they had a different version. They said we were slaughtering them, and that they considered the bowhead whale to be an endangered species,” she says, adding that it was commercial whalers from Boston and San Francisco that decimated the whale population, not Eskimos hunting from boats made of sealskin.
‘We Don’t Waste’
“We’ve only ever taken what we are expected to survive on, and we do it with respect. We only take what’s given to us, and we don’t waste it.”
Recipients of the Goldman Prize are awarded $150,000, which, in Cannon’s case, will end up back in the community.
“My tribe, my native village in Point Hope is in financial need right now,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to build a soup kitchen in our community, and that would be with my church. I want to help my community whichever way I can help them.”
She is weary of the media attention she has endured in recent weeks, so I ask her just one more question: What next for Caroline Cannon?
“I’m going to go home and go whaling, because that’s who I am.”
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on stage and Jason Harper on cars.