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Regional History
Northwest and Arctic

In this section you will learn about:

  • Military development after World War II
  • Petroleum development
  • Emergence of Native movement
  • Bering Sea fisheries
  • Marine mammal management controversies
  • National interest lands

Cold War brings more construction

The Soviet Union and the United States were allies during World War II. When Germany and Japan were defeated, the two allies renewed pre-war hostility sharpened by their new roles as the world's major military powers. Each saw the other as the principal threat to its security. Alaska, as the closest United States territory to the Soviet Union, became the focus of a major military build-up.

Beginning in the early 1950s, aircraft control and warning stations were constructed throughout Alaska to aid in air defense of the territory. In 1954, a chain of radar stations designed to provide early warning to United States and Canadian authorities in the event of a cross-polar attack appeared on the North American shores of the Arctic Ocean. Some stations of this Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line were in Alaska, others in Canada.

Communications from the radar sites was by high-frequency radio. When this proved unreliable, new technology relying on tropospheric scatter of radio signals provided the basis for the White Alice Communications System. The communications sites, together with the DEW Line and aircraft control and warning stations, created small non-Native communities that dotted Northwest and Arctic Alaska.

These developments provided some employment opportunities for residents. Another result was greatly improved communications facilities, some that could be used by civilians. When the White Alice system was replaced by satellite communications in 1974, earth stations brought telephone and television reception to villages throughout Northwest and Arctic Alaska.

Arctic explorers sight lakes of oil

While the U.S. Air Force was responsible for the radar and communications stations, the U.S. Navy was also active in Northwest and Arctic Alaska. In addition to maintaining the small Naval Arctic Research Laboratory at Barrow, the navy managed millions of acres withdrawn as a naval petroleum reserve.

Many early travelers returned from the arctic and reported oil. A Hudson's Bay Company employee was one of the first. He noted seepages in the Canadian Arctic in the winter of 1837-1838. A member of Stoney's expedition brought back a small bottle of oil from the upper Colville River vicinity in 1885.

Others reported oil in the same vicinity during the early twentieth century. At this time navy ships were beginning to convert from coal to oil-fired boilers. A national program to set oil reserves aside for possible wartime use began. In 1912 two naval petroleum reserves were established in Kern County, California. Three years later a third reserve was defined in Wyoming. Then in 1923 President Warren G . Harding created the 37, 000 square mile Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 in Northwest and Arctic Alaska.

The area designated stretched from Icy Cape to the mouth of the Colville River. After five years of study, the U.S. Geological Survey concluded high quality oil was present there. In the following years, however, the navy displayed little interest in Petroleum Reserve No. 4. Inexpensive fuel oil could be obtained from much more accessible sources. World War II renewed interest in strategic petroleum reserves. By the fall of 1944 a naval exploration party, aided by a consulting firm, was in Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 to drill test wells and build necessary facilities. The first well was put down in 1945. In the ten years that followed, navy contractors continued investigations and located two oil fields and a large gas field in the reserve.

Oil exploration brought change to arctic communities. Contractors hired Eskimos from Barrow and surrounding villages. The discovery of a gas field south of Barrow provided the community with inexpensive heat and electricity. For the first time many could afford boat motors and snow machines. These developments caused more Eskimos to move to Barrow from outlying villages.

Two Native protests

As government projects and interest in Northwest and Arctic Alaska increased, conflicts arose. Native opposition to government actions grew into protests on two occasions. In 1957 the government proposed Project Chariot. A part of the Atomic Energy Commission's Plowshare Program to explore peaceful uses of nuclear energy, nuclear explosives were to be used to carve out a deep harbor for Northwest and Arctic Alaska. The commission planned an underwater nuclear explosion at the mouth of Ogotoruk Creek near Cape Thompson.

Physicists assured Alaskans of the safety of such a blast. Villagers near the site opposed the project. Residents worried about health hazards. No one knew what the effect of the explosion might have upon important natural resources. Led by Eskimo Howard Rock from Point Hope, the villagers forced the government to abandon Project Chariot in 1961.

A second protest opposed regulations that infringed on traditional hunting. In 1960 federal agents arrested John Nusunginya, a representative in the state legislature, at Barrow for shooting ducks outside the hunting season established by an international migratory bird treaty. In response to Nusunginya's arrest, 138 Barrow men shot ducks and presented themselves to the federal game wardens for arrest. Although charges against Nusunginya were dropped, Barrow residents were warned that future violations would lead to arrest and prosecution.

Natives unite in new movement

The two protests were part of the growing political activism of Alaska's Natives. In 1966 Charlie Edwardson, Jr., who was chairman of a community education program in Barrow, called a meeting to discuss Eskimo land rights. The conference led to the formation of the Arctic Slope Native Association whose goal was to receive title to 58 million acres of land north of the Brooks Range. Members of the Arctic Slope group, the Northwest Alaska Native Association (NANA), and the recently organized Seward Peninsula Native Association filed protests against state land selections in Northwest and Arctic Alaska. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall halted all federal land transactions in Alaska until Congress settled the issue of Alaska Native land claims. Oil at Prudhoe Bay Lands already acquired by the State of Alaska were not affected by Udall's freeze. Several oil companies had leased state land in Northwest and Arctic Alaska to explore for oil. In 1968 oil gushed from a wildcat well drilled by the Atlantic Richfield Company at Prudhoe Bay.

The first attempt to build a road to the arctic oil fields was a muddy failure. In 1968 the state constructed a 400-mile winter route from Livengood, near Fairbanks, to Prudhoe Bay. When summer came the highway turned into a ditch filled with water from thawing soil. The big question was how to get the oil to refineries and markets. Some people thought that the Northwest Passage could be used. To determine if that would be possible, the supertanker SS Manhattan was equipped as an icebreaker to attempt a trial run. The Manhattan managed to make its way through the ice-clogged Northwest Passage from Prudhoe Bay east to the Atlantic Ocean, but it was concluded that this method of hauling oil was both impractical and dangerous.

Howard Rock

"Natives of Alaska, the Tundra Ties is your paper," wrote founder Howard Rock in the first edition on October 1, 1962. "It's here to express your ?deal, your thoughts and opinions on issues that vitally affect you." The newspaper, Rock explained, had two major goals. One vas to air the views of Native organizations, their aims, and their hopes. The second was to keep all Natives of Alaska informed on matters that concerned them.

The first years were a struggle, but by the end of the 1960's Rock and the Tundra Times were widely respected. When he died in 1976, praise of him and his accomplishments poured into the Tundra Times office. "Perhaps more than anyone else, Rock helped weld together the frontier state's 55, 000 Natives for their successful years--long fight to win the largest aboriginal land claims settlement in American history," wrote Stan Patty of the Seattle Times. "He was their voice." The Alaska State Legislature paid tribute to this "leader and spokesman . . . a good man and a good friend, a true Alaskan."

Rock, an Inupiat Eskimo, was born Howard Weyahok on August 10, 1911, at Point Hope. He attended high school at White Mountain, and went on to the University of Washington. He served as a radio operator in North Africa during World War II, then settled in Seattle as a silversmith and jewelry designer. In the summer of 1961, Rock returned to Alaska to visit his birthplace. He found plans underway for "Project Chariot," an experiment proposed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC wanted to explode a nuclear device at Cape Thompson near Point Hope to create a deep-water harbor. Residents of nearby villages had not been consulted about the effects a nuclear explosion might have on the area, and they were strongly opposed. Rock became their spokesman.

Meanwhile, Point Hope and Barrow Eskimos had formed a regional group the called Inupiat Paitot to take up the concerns of Northwest and Arctic Natives. The organization needed a newsletter and they asked Rock to edit it. Rock agreed, on the condition that the newsletter be published to serve the needs of all Alaska Natives. It was to be a common voice to draw them together. Rock, who had no experience in journalism, was assisted by a Fairbanks reporter named Torn Snapp. Funds cane from Dr. Henry S. Forties, a Massachusetts physician who was an active supporter of American Indian affairs.

The Tundra Times helped Natives throughout Alaska realize that they faced a common threat, the loss of their land. Rock encouraged them to form a statewide organization, and his paper publicized the movement for passage of land claims legislation. Rock's leadership was recognized in 1974 when he was voted Alaskan of the Year. The same year, the Tundra Times was nominated for a national Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

The week after Rock's death on April 20,1976, the Tundra Times eulogized the man whose leadership had done so much for all Alaska Natives. "It was Rock's voice," the editorial said, that "spoke knowingly about the thoughts of the Native people in their continuing struggle to preserve a life that would approach a perfect balance between man himself and the land that he love."

Settlement act leads to Native corporations

As a result of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, three regional corporations and 36 village corporations formed in Northwest and Arctic Alaska. The villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, and Elim on the Seward Peninsula, voted to retain their status as reservations. The regional corporations, Arctic Slope, Northwest Alaska Native Association, and Bering Straits, served approximately the same geographic areas as the Native associations formed in the 1960s. They established headquarters at the three largest communities in Northwest and Arctic Alaska, Barrow, Kotzebue, and Nome.

Disaster strikes Nome

Nome, where the Bering Straits corporation headquartered, continued to be threatened by fall and winter storms. In 1950 the federal government had financed construction of a breakwater to keep sea water from washing over Nome. The breakwater could not save the town from a wild storm in November of 1974. Gale force winds blew out of the west during a high tide. Giant waves and ice smashed Front Street. Most of the business district was damaged or destroyed. Barges were swept from their off-shore moorings onto the beach.

The storm damage amounted to millions of dollars. Nome was declared a disaster area, thus making federal funds available to help rebuild.

Revitalized industries boost economy

In the 1960s and 1970s both new and revitalized industries boosted Northwest and Arctic Alaska's economy. Southeast of Nome at Golovin, commercial herring fishing had ended with World War II, after more than 30 years of operation. Herring was again processed for a seven year period in the 1960s. At the same time, the waters of Norton and Golovin bays were opened to commercial salmon fishing. Cannery ships began to operate in the area. By 1980 fishermen were also taking king crab from the Bering Sea near Nome.

Some reindeer herders of the Seward Peninsula had survived the huge losses that marked the industry in the 1930s. They had continued to provide meat and hides for local markets. Then Koreans began buying reindeer horns for hundreds of dollars a pound to sell in Asia as aphrodisiacs. By the 1980s the value of the horns far surpassed the value of the reindeer meat and hides. Asia was an important market for Alaska's resources.

In the early 1970s the U.S. government began lifting restrictions on private ownership of gold and stopped setting its price. Gold prices fluctuated dramatically in the late 1970s, topping $500 an ounce. Claims in Alaska, many not worked for years, were again mined. Gold production in 1981 for all Alaska has been estimated at 125, 000 ounces.

Eskimos preserve their heritage

After oil field development in Prudhoe Bay began, eight villages in an area of 88,000 square miles joined to form the North Slope Borough in 1972. Since this included the oil fields, the borough collected taxes on valued at billions of dollars. The villages property put the funds to work building new homes, schools, water systems, and sanitation services.

Development activity both enhanced and threatened Northwest and Arctic Alaska. Eskimos in Barrow wanted to preserve the best of their heritage. The North Slope Borough's Commission on History and Culture organized the first Eskimo Elder's Conference in Barrow in 1975. The meeting brought older men and women together to share their memories of past traditions.

One result of the conference was identification of important cultural sites on the Beaufort Sea coast. These included Tigvariak, Flaxman, and Cross islands. Eskimos from the Beaufort Sea coast and from inland settlements had gathered at Tigvariak and Flaxman islands for summer trade fairs long before white traders arrived. Many had hunted caribou, which fled to the islands in the summers to escape the mosquitoes of the mainland. Cross Island had been a favorite whaling camp.

Eben Hopson, Arctic Leader With a Cause

The Eskimo language contains "the memory of four thousand years of human survival . . . Our language contains the intricate knowledge of the ice that we have seen no others demonstrate. Without our central involvement there can be no safe and responsible Arctic resource development."

The speaker was North Slope Borough mayor Eben Hopson, on the occasion of the first Eskimo Circumpolar Conference in dune of 19'7. At Hopson's urging, Eskimo delegates had come to Barrow from Denmark, Canada, and the United States to discuss the importance of international cooperation in protecting the arctic environment. When Hopson died of cancer three years later, he was one of the most respected Native leaders in Alaska.

Hopson's life represented many of the changes in the Arctic. His grandfather was an English whaler who settled in Barrow in 1886 . Eben was the first child to be born in the mission hospital there. He began taking up causes at an early age. As a young man of 15, Hopson was scheduled to leave for boarding school on the Bureau of Indian Affairs ship North Spar when his passage was abruptly cancelled. He had criticized the Barrow school principal for using students to work on public projects with no pay. Instead of going to high school, he went to work as a construction laborer. Returning to Barrow after a stint with the army in World War II, Hopson joined the Alaska National Guard's Eskimo Scout Battalion. When John F. Kennedy became president of the United States in 1961, Hopson led the Alaska battalion that marched in the inaugural parade.

Elected to the territorial legislature in 1956 and to the first state senate in 1958, Hopson became convinced that Alaska Natives needed to organize a campaign to reclaim their ancient lands. As executive director of the Alaska Federation of Natives, Hopson launched the land claims lobby in Washington, D.C., to promote passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That battle had hardly been won when Hopson realized another dream, the formation of the 88,000-square-mile North Slope Borough. During his term as mayor, borough funds helped provide better housing for low income families and built community improvements such as airports and roads.

In 1976 Hopson won the Democratic nomination to the United States House of Representatives. He used his campaign to point out the need for not only national, but international policies to guide the development of natural resources in the Arctic. He did not win the election, but he succeeded in organizing Eskimos to work for better resource legislation. Although suffering from cancer, Hopson traveled around the world representing Eskimo views about the Arctic. His efforts helped convince the International Whaling Commission to allow limited subsistence hunting of the bowhead whale. At the same time he led the fight against lease sales in the Beaufort Sea, because he thought that offshore drilling would threaten the bowhead's survival.

International commission sets whaling quotas

Whales became the subject of a conflict that reached far beyond Alaska's borders in the late 1970s. Beginning in 1977 the International Whaling Commission, whose member nations include the United States, had set the number of whales of different species that could be harvested throughout the world. Northwest and Arctic Alaska Eskimos thought the bowhead whale quota was unreasonably low. Conservationists feared that without limits the bowhead whale would become extinct.

The whale hunt was important to Eskimo culture. Members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission explained "To be a Native, one must hunt. To be an Eskimo, one must hunt the bowhead." The bowhead hunt gave Eskimos a sense of their heritage.

Marine mammal act limits walrus hunting

Controversy surrounded not only arctic whale hunting but also Bering Sea walrus hunting. The number of walrus taken almost doubled in the between 1962 and 1977. More often than not, only the tusks were kept and the carcasses were wasted.

The federal marine mammal act in 1972 allowed the state to assume day-to-day marine mammal management, but the national government set policy. Under the act, the federal government limited walrus-hunting to Alaska Natives and established an annual hunting quota of 3,000 walrus. When increasing kills approached this number, the government set quotas for each village. This was very unpopular.

Prior to 1972 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had permitted sport hunting of walrus and encouraged development of commercial markets. State game managers believed the quota set by federal officials should be increased. Their studies indicated that the walrus population was too high. This and other disagreements led the state to return walrus management to the federal government in 1979.

For villages like Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence and Little Diomede islands, walrus was an important food source. Hunters in those communities believed that limits and quotas were unnecessary. One hunter said:

You don't know what it is to be Eskimo. Out here hunting is our way of life. Carving ivory is our livelihood. We don't want welfare supporting us and we don't want to be forced from the villages.

Land use controversies are resolved

Land use controversies in Northwest and Arctic Alaska were as intense as the disputes over whale and walrus management. As was true in other regions of Alaska, identification of lands so important they deserved to be managed by the federal government excited keen interest on the part of people who were both for and against the withdrawals. In Northwest and Arctic Alaska, these people included the region's residents, developers who wanted to exploit the oil and other resources of the area, and environmentalists who wanted to protect values they believed existed nowhere else in the world.

When the studies and political action were completed, the map of Northwest and Arctic Alaska included units of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in the Bering and Chukchi seas, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge running east from the Canadian border almost to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline corridor, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in the central Brooks Range, and a number of smaller parks, preserves, and refuges to the west. North of these is the old naval petroleum reserve, now called National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. About the time these lands were set aside, oil companies began to develop new oil fields on the edge of the Prudhoe Bay facilities.

That development reflected the world oil market, which made it feasible to produce Northwest and Arctic Alaska oil despite the enormous costs. Just as influences from outside the area have molded Northwest and Arctic Alaska's past, external factors were shaping the region's future.

Summary questions

  1. What was the lasting outcome of the Native protests against Project Chariot and government regulations?
  2. What was the relationship between arctic oil and Native land claims?

Inquiry question

  1. Find out how much of the oil consumed daily in the United States is produced in Northwest and Arctic Alaska.

1897-1920 GOLD
1920-1945 THE AIR AGE
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