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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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Alaska has always been about its energy resources. Whale oil, then coal, then crude oil. Abraham Lincoln’s mean little Secretary of State Seward was no fool in buying “Seward’s Folly.” Seward recognized that Alaska represented liquid gold. To travel the Great Circle route to the Orient, U.S. warships and traders would need to re-provision along the way, filling whale-oil lamps against the Arctic night, and later, take on coal, then crude, for combustion-engine battle

cruisers. White people’s need for whale oil far outlived Herman Melville. The first

automobile transmissions required whale oil. Today, the best stuff, a liquid cut out of the brains and foreheads of sperm whales, is used for high-altitude components directing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Whale is used as a preservative for billionaire’s trophy wives: blubber in high-fashion makeup, and ambergris in the most expensive perfumes.

It’s interesting to note that when white people needed whale oil, no one gave a shit how many of these thoughtful mammals were hacked apart and melted.

Pity there was none. . . . He must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. 

According to Chief Akootchook, the wildlife cops were radio-tagging and relocating the bears because they got in the way of drilling. Just like the Natives, the bears had to get the hell off the industry’s real estate. His line about the tagging might have been bullshit, so we decided to take a look for ourselves. Akootchook’s seventeen-foot runabout had a 150-hp engine strong enough to rip through the thickening layer of ice to another sand spit. Inside the boat, the Native had stowed a rusted, antique Winchester, that really old type from the cowboy movies. You can’t stop a bear with that, Chief. “Don’t have to. If a bear charges, I just have to stop you.” The Jay Leno of the Arctic. Rick, James, and I hopped to the sand spit with Akootchook to film two polar bears just jerking around in the water near the beach, hugging each other, rolling around on their backs. One got curious and walked out, strolling toward our camera fixed to a tripod, sniffing. Then he got too curious. Our host said emphatically, “Get back behind me right now!—but move slow.” The bear headed toward us. He did not seem menacing, but this fucker weighed more than all four of us combined.

Akootchook cocked the Winchester, just like Wyatt Earp, and fired. I don’t like gunfire. Never have. The bear stopped, turned, and loped away, looking back at us like, “Hey, dudes, you should chill.”

We moved quick to the boat. So did the bear. Oh, mama. This was not National Geographic. We scrambled into the skiff, and Akootchook backed it up as the bear came up and stared. Then Akootchook said those magic words, “I’ve lost steering.” I have a little boat just like this one. So I calmly (hysterically, actually) shouted, “Unbolt the cables from the helm and move the motor with your hands!” I grabbed and gunned the throttle while the Chief manhandled the outboard.

Obviously, we did not drift, dehydrate, and die in the Arctic Ocean; how doesn’t matter. I came away from the incident with one happy thought: James had forgotten his satellite phone and hospital-in-a-bag. But I did turn on Ricardo, a man who has held his camera steady under fire in Iraq. “Shit, man, I’m disappointed in you, abandoning your camera. We can always get another cameraman, but not another shot like that.”

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