On the way to this internet cafe, I met an indigenous woman called Sam. She was standing on the steps of my B&B, and was really friendly (she thought my accent was ‘cute’), so we walked together for a while. ‘I’m from Barrow’, she told me. That’s right up on the North coast of Alaska, deep in the Arctic Circle. I asked her what she was doing all the way down here in Anchorage. ‘Oh, I have a six-pound tumor in my stomach’, she told me cheerily. ‘They’re flying in doctors from Texas to try and take it out. Do you have four dollars for the bus to the hospital?’ Shocked, I gave her the money.
Alaska, as everyone keeps telling me, is an oil state. And Barrow is oil central, perched near Prudhoe Bay, an industrial nightmare pumping millions of barrels out of Alaska’s North Slope - the coastline where North America meets the Arctic Ocean - and piping it down through the entire state, to fuel the US’s addiction to fossil fuels.
Having spent the last three days at a summit of indigenous activists from all over the world, I’d be willing to bet that Sam’s cancer is linked to the oil industry. It’s become very clear that climate change is only one of the ways in which oil is killing native peoples, here in North America and across the planet.
Earlier today I interviewed Faith Gemmill, a Gwich’in from North East Alaska. She has devoted her life to fighting resource extraction on indigenous lands, and she told me how people in Barrow and across the North Slope are experiencing horrific health problems as a direct result of the pollution from oil spills, gas flaring and industrial malpractice. Cancer rates have skyrocketed since the multinationals came to town, she told me, with all kinds of rare cancers never before seen in their people starting to appear, and to kill them.
After talking to Faith I had the privilege to meet Sarah James, a Gwich’in elder. Her community is right inside of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - the vast area of land that Big Oil has been fixing to sink its claws into for the last 30 years. Sarah’s community has been fighting this in whatever ways they can and, so far, have been successful. Now the oil industry is hurting them anyway, in the form of climate change. As well as difficulties finding food, and devastating forest fires, their village now has a ‘wolf problem’, as the migratory and hunting patterns of all their wildlife has changed and brought these increasingly desperate predators to their door.
I asked her what future she saw for her community, expecting to get a bleak answer. But instead, her eyes twinkled. The youth, she told me, all got together to talk about how to preserve their future and decided to demonstrate their intentions in a most practical way. They bought a solar panel. They had to source it from India, she chuckled, as the energy multinationals in this country have made access to this kind of small-scale technology impossible. But they got it, wired it up to their tiny laundry facility, and had a turning on ceremony.
What I’m hearing time and time again at this summit is that indigenous people are happily embracing new technologies that are small-scale and can be maintained and used by them independently, in order to reduce what small dependency on fossil fuels (and the industry behind it) they do have. Despite bearing no responsibility for the climate crisis, and yet feeling its impacts first and worst, they are living out the solutions. We would do well to listen and learn from them.