Akaka's stance on Alaskan refuge drilling is misguided
Sen. Dan Akaka and Rep. Ed Case have opposing views about opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
SEN. Dan Akaka portrays Rep. Ed Case as a Republican in Democratic clothing, but on one important issue the two candidates are far apart in reverse roles. Case opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while Akaka is in favor of drilling, claiming to act at the behest of "the indigenous people of Alaska." His rationale is unacceptable and displays a misunderstanding of those native peoples.
Akaka joined Sen. Dan Inouye, Republicans and only one other Democrat last November in voting for a bill that would allow drilling in the precious Alaskan refuge. The vote was 51-48. Their votes were not surprising, as the two senators had abandoned their party on this issue on previous occasions. Further congressional action is required to formally open the area for drilling.
Akaka told of having met members of the Inupiat tribe who "are kindred spirits with Hawaiians," sharing "a strong and sacred bond to their lands and waters." In a 2001 op-ed column on these pages, he described them as "subsistence hunters who depend on the land," deriving 60 percent of their diet from "caribou, marine mammals, fish and waterfowl."
The emphasis should have been on marine mammals, which is why Inupiat tribal leaders are opposed to offshore drilling, regarded as a threat to their whaling. In a 2002 op-ed column in the Star-Bulletin, Charles Pe'ape'a Makawulu Burrows, president of Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi, a Hawaiian environmental group, wrote that only 10 percent of their food resources are migratory caribou.
Akaka says he focused on the Inupiat because they live within the refuge. However, another tribe, the Gwich'in, located inland in villages near the southern boundary of the refuge, depend heavily on the Porcupine River caribou herd for their subsistence.
The Gwich'in, which means "people of the land," watch pregnant cows and later bulls and yearlings as they begin migrating north every spring to the refuge's coastal plain, a birthplace they consider sacred. "Today, as in the days of their ancestors, the caribou is still vital for food, clothing, tools, and are a source of respect and spiritual guidance for the Gwich'in," according to the tribe's steering committee.
The 129,000 caribou spend their summers on the 1.5-million-acre area of the refuge that has been set aside for oil exploration and potential development. The refuge is home to 45 species of land and marine mammals, including polar bears, grizzly, black bears and musk oxen.
In a letter to the Star-Bulletin after last year's Senate vote, Robert Thompson, an Inupiat who lives in the northern coastal village of Kaktovik and opposes the drilling, wrote that Akaka had been invited to meet and speak to the Gwich'in but had not done so.