Vultures' Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores
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Akootchook offered us some alcohol-free beer, which he asked Mrs. Akootchook, in a gentle, nearly inaudible Inupiat, to bring for us. He introduced her as “Daisy,” her Bureau of Indian Affairs name, I assumed. But Etok, of course, wouldn’t “Daisy” her. He called her “Mutti.” Mutti had that small, round look of the cartoon Eskimo squaw, and I knew our director would be pleased with finding a recognizable stereotype. (Forgive us, Lord, for doing things the easy way.)
Daisy proudly showed me the artifacts she had gathered on the beach, the remains of the drowned houses of the old village. Junk that had been cluttering up sunken closets in the drowned homes had floated ashore, some of it a hundred or five hundred years old: arrow shafts, bone bracelets, and brass reindeer bells.
Reindeer like Santa? Yes, said Akootchook, three thousand head roamed here until the dynamite blasts for the seismic mapping for the oil chased them into the protection of the bigger, stronger herd of caribou. The caribou bulls humped all the female reindeer and put an end to the delicate lineage—the only known case of mammals screwed to extinction.
No one was going to fornicate a whale into extinction, but a little hydro- carbon in the water would chase them away. Whales don’t like swimming in crude any more than you would, and they won’t put up with it. If that happens, if the whales leave, kiss Kaktovik good-bye and about every Eskimo village on the North Slope.
This past year, the whaling sucked. Kaktovik caught only three. Etok’s agreement with the whaling cops allows a catch of sixty whales a year on the North Slope, and this year they didn’t get close. Still, three whales for Kaktovic is a lot of mucousy meat and blood.
Akootchook is nervous. For the Inupiat, whaling is not a Cultural Experience; it’s an Eating Experience. They really, truly survive by taking whales, a few polar bears (only those, the chief assures me, who have attitude problems), seal, moose, and Rudolf the Red-nosed Caribou. They aren’t fighting offshore drilling to preserve their lifestyle, but to preserve their lives.
If the whales, bears, and fish are scared off by Big Oil’s filth machines, there will simply be no way for Etok’s people to remain in the Arctic, at least not living as Inupiat. Some would stay on to man the port-a-potty concessions for the oil roustabout crews, or work the rigs themselves. Most would have to abandon their homes and go south, where they will get port-a-potty jobs in warmer climes.
They have no desire to don the BP suits with the little oil barrels on the badges I saw in Baku, to work the petroleum plantation. They don’t want to end up as hired hands on their own land. The Inupiat don’t need to be tamed.
Etok’s message to the Queen to take BP’s rigs and shove them has a price tag. The Eskimos are unique in having won oil royalty payments, so their choice to block the drilling will cost them easily a billion dollars, roughly a mil- lion per family.
I told Etok, “OK, you tell Her Royal Highness, on camera, what you think of BP’s plan, but only if I get a bowl of mikiaq.” Unfortunately, Mutti had just made some. Her face lit up with the opportunity to bring in a big plastic bucket of the greenish chewy whale meat hunks. It sits in a kind of mucous jelly and comes accompanied by a pan of congealed blood. Blood is unexpectedly sweet (vampires have a point), but whale—maybe the idea of it—nearly caused me to commit the social faux pas of vomiting on my hosts.