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Vultures' Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores

In his new book, journalist Greg Palast talks about his encounter with Etok, an Inupiat Alaskan fighting oil companies and their government backers.

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The university was discomfited by Etok’s making a felony a required class assignment. The academic board also took issue with his failing any student who refused to board the ship and join the occupation. “I flunked every one of their racist asses,” Etok told me. The university fired him. The occupation of Alcatraz ended in 1970 when Richard Nixon ordered its invasion at about the same time he invaded Cambodia. But Etok’s group won, ending the U.S. policy of Termination and Relocation that had destroyed Kaktovik.

The ex’d professor returned to the North for the summer whale hunt and prepared for the next invaders: the British, who smelled oil at Prudhoe Bay. That same year, British Petroleum set out on a mission to grab control of the oil lying underneath the Natives, and to seize the pipeline route that would carry the oil through the Natives’ land to Valdez. Etok prepared himself for this trillion-dollar international chess match. Etok held the pipeline up for ransom. His uncle laid out several bear traps of lawsuits. They hired America’s top “Jew lawyers,” as he described them, including President Johnson’s personal attorney. Etok won the backing of powerful senators, and launched his own corporate battleship, founding the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Etok was also savvy to the advice of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt: There is no power without state power. He created a new political entity, North Slope Borough County, the largest in the United States (and way larger than all of England). It was not quite national sovereignty, but it was a government recognized by the “Americans” under the comity clause of the U.S. Constitution,* with its own flag and power to make law.

Etok is still bitter over what he considered his meager winnings for the Eskimos in 1971: a deed to forty-four million acres of land, several billion dollars in no-bid contracts, oil royalties, and the multiplication of Eskimo power. A disappointment, but surely it must have been satisfying for Etok when the Inupiat of Kaktovik told the U.S. Air Force to get the hell off their Native property. Today, you cannot find any artifacts of the U.S. military occupation of Kaktovik. The Air Force had to remove all traces of their incursion except for the runway where the old village stood. Chief Akootchook needs the airfield to ship in goodies like Honda outboards for the whaleboat, high-speed Inter- net, and an easy way out and back for the Eskimos’ vacations to Hawaii.

Nevertheless, one modern trinket is banned from the Arctic Republic. Etok has rejected twenty-first-century weapons for the whale hunts. The explosives and rocketry used by those pigs, the Japanese commercial whalers, “destroy too much of the meat,” he told me. “You have to cut out all that toxic powder.” So, Etok and villagers all along the Slope still use the nineteenth- century shoulder gun and the charge-tipped harpoon. Herman Melville and Queequeg would feel quite at home on Etok’s hunting boat. 


Rick and a now-tamed James left the White Man’s Bunkhouse, to follow Etok, Intelligence Chief Harry Lord, and me to Chief Akootchook’s home on the shore of the Beaufort Sea, a fat appendage of the polar ocean. The Chief is an arctic Damien Hirst. When we got to the small stilt bungalow, we found his cellar full with a half dozen semi-frozen caribou and moose that he had chain- sawed in half. “If you leave the skin on, it cooks up real fresh.” I took his word for it.

I looked north into Nothing. This was the last house before the world comes to an end, my world, anyway. Akootchook’s next-door neighbor to the north was in Norway, herding reindeer. Etok had made contact with the Norwegians in their “backyard,” creating a circumpolar association of indigenous people. When Siberia’s Governor tried to block Russian Natives from joining, Etok paid the Russian pol $25,000 in cash. Apparently, Etok speaks Russian.

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