By Greg Palast, Penguin Books
Posted on November 18, 2011, Printed on November 19, 2011
The following is an excerpt from Greg Palast’s “Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores.” Click here to buy your copy. AlterNet will publish part II of this excerpt tomorrow.
There is a legend told among the Inupiat Alaskans who live above the Arctic Circle, “Etok Tames the Green People.” It goes like this:
In the Old Days, as today, the peoples on the edge of the Arctic Sea killed whales. It’s just what they do. It’s what they eat. But the Green People didn’t like that, and so the Green People set out one day in their fancy-ass black powerboat to stop the people of the Arctic Sea from doing their whale killing thing.
It was a long, long time ago in 1979. The elders tell us how the Green People showed up outside the Inupiat Native village of Kaktovik in their black powerboat and set out their stores of vegetables on the beach. The Green People only ate green food. The Green People then set off in their black powerboat on their blubber-saving mission, with a plan to block the Eskimo’s bidarka whaling ship. Quick as a Raven’s wink, they got lost in a fog bank and stuck in the ice sheet. Prepared, committed, and resourceful, the Green People set out their pup tents on the ice floe and slept, hoping for the fog to lift in the morning.
But they were not lost. The Inupiat of the Arctic Sea knew exactly where the Green People were. Etok, the great whale hunter, told his villagers to accept the gift of the Green People and take all their vegetables. Etok then told his people to be patient, and, elders say, they lit up some excellent weed, put on Bob Dylan tapes, and waited.
During the summer the sun never sets in the Inupiat land. It just rolls around the sky in a Circle. And under the gyrating sun, the Greens’ expensive boat, being black, absorbed the radiant heat, melted the ice holding it and drifted out into the endless Sea.
By three a.m., the wait was over, and the patient Eskimo leader told his people to go and retrieve the lost black boat, call the Coast Guard, and claim it as abandoned property.
In the morning, the Green People awoke, still in fog, and did not see their boat, their boat with their emergency radio and food. The Green People drifted on their block of ice, lost and doomed. Etok told his people not to move, that the Green People must “cry themselves out” and obtain the wisdom that comes with accepting your certain death by starvation, hypothermia, or polar bear.
The Inupiat of the Arctic Sea waited an entire day. Then another day and another day.
On the fourth day, Etok figured the Green People were now wise enough, hungry enough, and thirsty enough. He ordered his people to rescue them. “They are vegetarians,” the wise Etok explained to his people and ordered them to bring many buckets of mikiaq, fermented whale meat in congealed blood. The hungry Green People ate the whale, no longer giving a shit that it was some goddamned endangered species. The Inupiat told them it was not wise to enter the Native boats. The rescue party had brought along a filthy crude-oil barge for the frozen Green People to ride.
The Natives dumped the Green People at Dead Horse, where White People take petroleum from Prudhoe Bay. The Green People, whose lesson had been taught to them without their knowing, thanked the Inupiat for saving their lives. And from that day forward, Greenpeace protected the Natives’ right to kill whales as in the Old Days, and joined the Inupiat people in fighting their competitors, the commercial whalers or, as the Natives call them, “the fucking Japanese.”
Etok is one bad-ass Eskimo.
THE SHOW GIRLS CLUB, FAIRBANKS, ALASKA, 2010
I didn’t have any trouble picking him out, even in the pumping lights of the Fairbanks strip club where we were supposed to meet: the leather-dark face, a wolverine pelt sewn into his parka collar with its vicious fangs still attached, and, around his neck, five huge claws of the last polar bear killed by his father. Eskimo bling.
While I’d heard that Eskimos kiss by rubbing noses, the look in Etok’s eyes suggested I wasn’t going to get the nose rub.
“Mr. Palast, we are the last of the Pleistocene people,” he told me. “It would be an honor to help you fuck up British Petroleum and fuck up your Queen, too.”
It was entirely appropriate for Etok, as a head of state, to address his concerns through me, a reporter for British government television, to his diplomatic equal, the Monarch of Windsor; though, as Etok would point out, his realm was larger than Britain, with more resources. And unlike England, Etok’s kingdom had never lost a war. I promised to carry his message back to Her Majesty.
In the fall of 2010, BP’s oil was still sloshing around the Gulf of Mexico. Where would BP strike next?
I was tired of reporting on disasters after the body count, after the oil hits the beach, after pipes explode, and after kids get cancer. I wanted to film a disaster before it happened.
So I took Ricardo, his cameras, and my dear Director James to the North. Just above the Arctic Circle, where British Petroleum and Shell Oil are sharpening their drill bits, ready to bite into the receding ice of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. For Big Oil, global warming is a profit center. The hole their hydrocarbons has punched in the ozone has opened up once ice-locked oil fields and tanker routes.
It’s a global warming bonanza for BP if they can just skooch a few sea mammals out of the way. The Beaufort Sea is the part of the Arctic Ocean that meets Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The “Wildlife” of the Refuge includes the Inupiat-speaking Eskimos, the whale hunters. BP would have to move the polar bears, the whales, and the whale hunters. But that means the landlord has to approve. That’s Etok. At least according to Etok.
Etok is at times the unofficial and at times the official sovereign of this polar territory, which is officially sovereign—except when it isn’t. The confusion results from the historical oddity that the Eskimo never surrendered to “America” but America pretended they did. There was never a war, so there was never peace nor a peace treaty. For Etok, the Inupiat’s Arctic remains a free republic under occupation—by the British. For the Eskimos of the oil-lush North Slope of Alaska, the BP and Shell logos are far more powerful than the American flag.
The first Eskimo movie star, Nanook of the North, died of starvation after he sold fur pelts for knives and candy to John Jacob Astor. Astor would resell them at Saks Fifth Avenue for thousands of dollars even in the 1920s. Etok has no sympathy for Nanook. Etok thinks Nanook used his knife on the wrong animals.
The Chief of Intelligence, Harry Lord, the one who sent me the invite to the Arctic, had given Etok my last book. The Leader, for whom preparation means survival, had highlights and notes on virtually every page.
Whether Etok trusted me or not, I don’t know. He certainly decided he could make use of me to issue his ultimatum to BP and the Queen’s ignorant subjects. Our television program, Dispatches, is carefully scanned by the UK’s ruling elite. If he could get me into these closed-off zones, and in return, I could get his story out, well, we had a deal.
The Inupiat leader ordered nonalcoholic brews for us and took us to a corner of the empty barroom turned away from the stage. While a drugged blond giantess shook her stuff, Etok explained his purpose and his rules for our next day’s travel to a Native-only town within his nation above the Arctic Circle. The big girl, feeling ignored, put on a long winter coat and sat down with us, nodding, as perplexed as we were.
ON THE LANDING STRIP AT KAKTOVIK
There was whale blubber everywhere, and whale bones big as taxicabs along the inexplicably long air strip, and huge blocks of whale fat in driveways and in backyards among busted ATVs and diesel-powered dogsleds. Giant hunks of whale meat were strewn in front of the stilt houses, with a dog tied up next to each pile. The dogs are tethered, kept out all day, in case a polar bear wanders in for a whale-meat snack. The dogs will bark long enough, before being eaten, to warn the families inside.
While bouncing in the back of the four-wheeler taking us from the “airport,” James spotted a whale carcass. It was on a sand spit about a mile offshore. James was hot to film it. That sure would wow the network even if our London studios ended up getting picketed by untamed greenies. Etok dropped us at the bunkhouse built for visiting white people. He took in James’s request to visit the carcass and said we would be escorted there in Akootchook’s boat. Akootchook is the local Deputy Chief. Akootchook, word came back, agreed to take us, but for now, the Chief was on a conference call with lawyers.
We had arrived right on the autumnal equinox, when endless day tips into endless night, and James fretted about losing the sunlight needed for filming. I knew enough to nap until further notice, and Rick quietly filmed lots of the icy emptiness.
James, seeing the precious daylight dying, asked Etok if he could tell the Chief to hurry up a bit.
Oh shit oh God no, James.
“LISTEN, YOU RUDE LITTLE IMPATIENT BRITISH PRICK. YOU WILL FOLLOW PROTOCOL, COCKSUCKER. THIS IS NOT YOUR FUCKING IMPE- RIAL COLONY.”
Well, I figured James had to get a taming sometime, so at least that was now out of the way. James sat quietly, head down . . . while I listened with great care to Intelligence Chief Harry Lord and the tale of “How Kaktovik Lost the Cold War.”
In 1947, the U.S. Air Force told the Inupiat of Kaktovik to get the fuck out.
The U.S. military needed a big runway in case the Russians attacked America over the polar ice cap.
Kaktovik’s island was an interesting choice. You can fly a hundred miles in any direction from Kaktovik and you’ll find absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, the Air Force had to have that one single spot, the lone Eskimo village, within this vast emptiness. The Natives, by proving the location both geologically stable and weather-worthy, had placed a “steal me” sign on their homes.
Chief Akootchook, father of the current Chief Akootchook, sued to block the Natives’ expulsion.
The military responded with a beach landing, a kind of mini D-Day on ice. The United States Marines came ashore on the skinny peninsula at the island’s end. The invaders brought a bulldozer. Then, one by one, the GI’s earthmover pushed each and every Inupiat house into the Arctic Sea. It must have taken quite some time. There were more than a hundred homes on that land spit.
Kaktovik was more than a village to the Inupiat. It was their metropolis, the closest thing Eskimos had to a shopping mall, where Inuit from Can- ada traded with Alaskan Natives. They called it Barter Island. The Air Force nodded its head to history by giving the military’s new airport the identify- ing initials, BTI.
Akootchook still demanded a ruling from the courts. He got it. Unfortunately. The judge said the Natives of Kaktovik had to cease squatting on U.S. government property. It didn’t matter that the Inupiat had lived there for a few thousand years before the United States or its government existed. Well, that’s the fine print.
Some Natives remained, rebuilding, though on more treacherous shoreline. Then in 1954, the Air Force told the Natives to get off that land, too. America was building the world’s most powerful radar network, the DEW Line, to watch for the Soviet surprise missile attack.
The bulldozer went to work again and the Eskimos moved up the shore until 1961, when the Air Force told the Natives they had to move yet again. The Natives, the Air Force determined, were a “security risk.” The straggling crew of “security risks” picked up their whale guns and whalebone toys and moved again, for the last time, to the diminished little village I came to visit.
TO ALCATRAZ AND BACK
“The Americans,” as Etok calls us, did not realize that the Battle of Kaktovik was far from over.
In 1969, four thousand miles to the south, in San Francisco Bay, the federal government owned another island, also beautiful and extraordinarily valuable.
Etok, with a group of a hundred Indians from the Lower 48, landed, heavily armed, on this bay isle, once the home of Alcatraz Penitentiary, and told the U.S. government to get off their property, Indian property. The Natives were prepared to die for it, but not alone. They made it clear that any American invaders would go with them.
How did the Eskimo Etok end up as a proud, if temporary, owner of Alcatraz Island?