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Prestige for Point Hope leader who's fought Arctic oil development

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Jill Burke photo

Ask Caroline Cannon when she began her journey to become a leading voice in the fight to protect the Arctic waters of her homeland from the potentially devastating fallout of oil and gas development and she will take you back to her childhood.

She will tell you how she would sit quietly at tribal meetings in Point Hope, warming up after playing outside. All the time, though, she was absorbing what the elders and leaders were saying about their values and their connection to the ocean and the earth.

She will tell you about her parents -- her father was a successful whaling captain, and her mother taught her how to support the whaling effort by caring for the crew. It was a subsistence lifestyle during a time when the world there was much simpler, before freezers and sno-gos. She will tell you how the cycle of life in her remote village revolves around the land and the sea -- how the very core identity of their lives hinges on the health of the environment around them. She will tell you how terrified she is that something like an oil spill will take all that away forever.

It's a story she's told hundreds of times over the past 20 years as she's advocated for Point Hope on a statewide and national level, and it's a story that has won her arguably the most coveted environmental award in the world -- the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Cannon was given the award, which comes with a $150,000 individual cash prize, Monday at an award ceremony in San Francisco. She was the last presenter to speak of the six recipients from around the world. She told the audience about her meeting with President Obama, how he told her he related to her experience feeling like a second-class citizen, and promised he would protect the Inupiat people and their way of life. She asked everyone to help her hold the president to that promise. And she got a standing ovation from the 3,000 people gathered in the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.

"If it weren't for Caroline, people wouldn't be thinking about impacts to subsistence, and just how connected the people in the Arctic are to the ocean," said Betsy Beardsley, environmental justice director for the Alaska Wilderness League, who attended the award ceremony after years of traveling to meetings with the Point Hope leader. "She is up against big money corporations but at the same time, this is a human rights issue for her and the Inupiat people.

That's something that resonates with decision makers."

Beardsley said Cannon is particularly effective as a spokesperson because she has a way of describing the Inupiat way of life.

"She describes the Inupiat lifestyle and the culture and the spiritual connection to the ocean in a way that leaves people feeling like they have to do something," said Beardsley. "You can't put a price on a way of life. The subsistence economy is so important to the people of the Arctic Slope. That's why they are so concerned about what could happen if there were an oil spill of any kind."

Concern for identity

Cannon, when asked for her response to winning the prestigious recognition, said the applause should be for those who taught her what she is attempting to communicate to others -- the Native leaders who navigated the shift from subsistence hunters to businessmen virtually overnight with the passage of the Native Claims Settlement Act.

Cannon said she believes she was chosen by her elders to be a voice for her community.

Speaking Inupiat fluently, she was able to interpret as best she could, and gradually began to realize her voice was strong. She has served as president of the Native Village of Point Hope and on the board of the Maniilaq Association. She was a co-plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the 2007-2012 offshore oil and gas development plan.

"Her representation of Point Hope as a co-plaintiff in the suit was instrumental in bringing the case to victory when, in 2009, a federal court ruled that the proposed oil and gas leases failed to consider the significant impacts to the region's marine environment," said a profile presented of Cannon by award organizers.

Cannon said her motivation comes when she considers her grandchildren -- all 26 of them, several of whom were in the audience when she received the award.

"I am concerned about our identity," she said. "Genocide is a very hard word to use, but there is no way of cleaning up (if a spill occurs). Our own people are experts in the ocean, they are very intelligent people. We know that. I have a jar given to me from the Valdez Oil Spill. It helps keep me focused and remember what can happen. There is no way it is going to come back to day No. 1 (if a spill occurs). It's going to take its course, even 100 years down the line."

She said the evidence is all around her in Point Hope that this land and its ocean belongs to the people who live there.

"Something was taken away from us," she said. "We existed before time. You can see that from the whale bones, the trails, the ice cellars. What more can you say? That was taken away from us. We are the true owners."

Bittersweet or galvanizing?

Cannon's Goldman Environmental Prize, started in 1989 by late San Francisco civic leaders and philanthropists Richard and Rhonda Goldman, comes with interesting timing. Shell Oil is close to having all the permits it needs to drill five exploratory wells this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Drill rigs and dozens of support vessels, including a newly commissioned icebreaker, are readying to stage in Unalaska, while the Coast Guard is creating a temporary base in the Arctic this summer primarily in response to the increased activity in the northern waters. Meanwhile, scientists are warning that climate change models are showing a propensity for volatile weather in the future as sea ice diminishes and water current patterns shift.

For Cannon, the change is more obvious.

For the last two or three years, they haven't been able to pitch a tent on the ice to support whaling crews with food and coffee when they are hunting.

"I'm worried about my great-great-grandkids," she said. "This is who we are. For two years we did not land a whale and that identity is broken. I am blessed and fortunate to go back and forth to Barrow, so I would get muktuk. Some people I would give it to would literally have tears in their eyes."

Beardsley said that while some might consider Shell's potential drilling in the Arctic this summer as the end of the fight, she and Cannon were discussing following the award ceremony how this is really just the beginning.

"She has helped put the Arctic Ocean and the Inupiat people on the map for the world to see," Beardsley said. "It's the groundwork that will help our efforts to permanently protect the places in the Arctic Ocean that are most important for the people living there for their subsistence and way of life."

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.