As a musician, I’ve always felt a connection with the natural landscape, and this is especially true being that I was born in the Pacific Northwest where we take particular pride in our environment. I was born in Olympia, Washington, the literal end of the Oregon Trail and the most western extremity of the Wild West. I learned about Crazy Horse and his Lakota warriors defeating the US Cavalry when my family took a road trip to the Dakotas. This is where Custer and his mercenaries got their karmic return, and where indigenous warriors stand up to the big oil bullies on the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In the new American West we’re now dealing with the abomination of a right-wing government that turns a blind eye to the polluters of our land, air, and water. Our indigenous American warriors are standing up to them, and so should the rest of us. This fight is for the survival of our nation, a nation that should have clean air, water, and food for generations to come.
I wanted to learn more about this indigenous action on climate change and environmental degradation, so in 2016 I accepted an invite from the indigenous Gwich’in people of the Alaskan Arctic, and I made my way up to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When you personally visit the Refuge it becomes immediately clear that climate change and our heavy use of fossil fuels have radically damaged the natural landscape of our planet. This essay is the 2nd in a 3 part series “Amazon To Arctic,” and it’s about what I saw with my own eyes, my own boots on the ground so to speak.
The first time I visited Alaska was in 2006 when I went to see the powerful drum and dance competition at the Alaska Federation Of Nations. My second visit was in April of 2015 when I was a guest lecturer at the University of Alaska, and I drove as far north as Fairbanks to see the sacred Denali Mountain and the Northern Lights. This third trip took me about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to a tiny village that the Gwich’in call Vashraii K’oo, or Arctic Village. It’s the last spec of human civilization before you reach the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean, and all of this is right in the middle of one of the wildest and most beautiful places on Earth, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Being from Washington State, I’ve always felt a natural affinity for Alaska. Separated only by the Canadian province of British Columbia, Alaska just seems like a much bigger version of Washington. Both of my grandfathers, my father, and now myself have been drawn to Alaska either for work or for the raw beauty of the natural landscape. I also see many parallels between Alaska and some of the other more fragile ecosystems I have seen in the last few years.
From the air, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looks exactly like the Amazon Rainforest, with its winding rivers, lakes, and vivid green forests. But if the world is unable to stop Brazil and Peru from destroying the Amazon Rainforest (and both governments appear wholeheartedly willing to destroy it), how will the rest of us stand up to prevent the destruction of our own North American wildernesses from fossil fuel and other extractive industries? This is especially true under the current Trump administration, which has proven to be perhaps the most corrupt and destructive in American history. Our actions and political decisions now will affect every generation of humanity from here on out, so we must weigh our options heavily, and we must act decisively.
I started writing this essay in the chilly, quiet nights of August 2016, as I sat in my tent on the soft tundra in the backyard of the famed Gwich’in activist Sarah James. My initial questions were obvious ones: Why would we, as conscious human beings, let a handful of oil and gas corporations destroy one of the last pristine corners of our country? Because it is estimated by the oil experts themselves that there is only about one year’s worth of America’s petroleum needs in this part of the world. Why would they destroy this incredible corner of the Earth for one year of oil? The answer, of course, is corporate greed and, with it, the whitewashing of the facts.
I say “whitewashing” because the oil lobbyists would have you believe that the Arctic Refuge is a snow and ice covered wasteland devoid of life, and therefore a legitimate place for exploitation. This is absolutely false, and I can tell you as an eyewitness it is exactly the opposite. True, for about 4-5 months in the dead of winter it is covered with snow. So are Montana, Colorado and much of the Midwest and New England, for that matter. The rest of the time, from about April until November, the Arctic Refuge is one of the greenest, most beautiful places you will ever seen on Earth. There is so much water here, so many fish and birds, and an enormous boreal forest that supports caribou herds than number in the tens of thousands. It’s also one of the main habitats for grizzly and polar bears, wolves, and a massive bird migration system that is unrivaled on the planet.
The Arctic Refuge is where the vast majority of our planet’s migrating birds congregate before they make their enormous journeys around the planet. They come here to gorge on the insect populations that live in the rivers and lakes, because here the birds can breed, raise their young, and prepare to make enormous transoceanic flights. This includes flying nonstop across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Asia, as well as South America, and even all the way to the Antarctic, as the Arctic Tern does every year. It is, to make a human comparison, the bird equivalent of Heathrow Airport.
I came here with a few other adventurers in a small bush plane, where we were met by a fleet of 4-wheelers driven mostly by Gwich’in women. It’s ironic that 4-wheelers are the norm up here, and not horses, as they were just 50 years ago. Trucks cannot even get this far north except on a river barge, as there are no roads to Arctic Village, and gas is approaching $10 a gallon. 4-wheelers are a much more efficient mode of transportation, but how is it that gas in this northernmost part of Alaska is so expensive, when the oil companies are extracting millions of dollars a day in crude oil right out of the Gwich’in back yard? Already I began to see how the oil companies steal from the American people, from relatively voiceless native cultures in particular, and then sell the stolen goods right back to us at profits for the corporate elites that are both staggering and wholly scandalous.
Over the course of the ten days I spent in Arctic Village, Sarah James explained the plight of the Gwich’in and the tenuous situation in the Refuge. Sarah, who was born and raised in the Refuge, has almost singlehandedly raised their story to a global conversation. She learned how to survive as a child by learning the qualities of love and respect, both for the land and her people, and this has become her greatest power, a quality she exudes. Visiting Sarah in her modest cabin, I see pictures of her with world leaders, American presidents, and with environmental awards from almost every agency that matters. She is the real thing, a literal force of nature, and she wins over everyone with her charm and gregarious nature. She also has the facts on her side. Subscribe to
On my first day in the village Sarah gave me a copy of the excellent book, Arctic Voices, which is a series of essays written by notable scholars, travelers, and environmentalists on the Arctic situation. Every evening in my tent I read these essays, the light coming from the midnight sun, which only briefly dips below the horizon for about 3 hours every night, when the evening temperatures drop to freezing.
The ground is tundra, but it too is in danger because of the melting permafrost, and this is causing a myriad of problems, which I see for myself in the following days. I go for a walk with the renowned Gwich’in hunter and outdoorsman Charlie Swaney and everything is revealed. Tall, handsome, and about 60 years of age, Mr. Swaney has been interviewed by almost every hunting and sporting magazine that exists, he’s actually a celebrity in that world. Today, he and his men have just brought in the last of 8 caribou that they’ve hunted to feed the gathering of Gwich’in and environmentalists who have arrived in Arctic Village for the biennial meeting that is happening over the next 4 days.
Charlie tells me that when he is out in the Refuge, he sees a number of alarming problems related to global warming. The layers of permafrost, which date back to the last Ice Age, are melting under the tundra. This is causing the tree roots to loosen, which makes the trees lean and fall in all manner of directions. The “tipping forest” as they call it, and it is a disturbing sight to see because you can tell that something is very wrong with the land. He hands me his binoculars and I see an entire forest of formerly healthy trees leaning and tipping over in very unnatural ways. It’s a terrible sight to see.
He also describes huge upheavals in the soil, where giant mounds are emerging from the ancient methane gas that is being released. Riverbanks are crumbling, and this in turn is making the rivers become wider, but also shallower, a real danger for the spawning salmon that swim in the innumerable waterways. He remarks about it being over 80 degrees in Barrow Alaska a few days earlier, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. I am stunned, but I look it up when I return to Seattle and indeed, it was 80 degrees on the Arctic coast.
The Tipping Forest (aka The Drunken Forest)
Charlie shows me some fast growing under brush, including the scrub willow. It used to be short and close to the ground, but because of the warming temperatures, it is now growing taller. This is disrupting the natural migration routes of the Caribou, the one animal Charlie has studied, hunted, and revered his entire life. The Caribou prefer open, clear tundra where they can lead the herd, but they are becoming confused by the growing underbrush, which blocks their vision.
All of the things Charlie describes to me I see in larger perspective from his hunting camp high up in the Brooks Range. A grizzly has come through recently and shredded one of the large canvas tents as if it were paper, which makes Charlie laugh. From far above, I can see the tipping forests all around, the upheaval of giant methane mounds, and the rapid growth of the scrub willow. The Refuge is still extraordinarily beautiful, but something is very wrong here, you can see it, and you can feel it in your bones.
Because of the worsening situation in the Refuge, the biennial meeting is more about protecting the environment than anything else. Elders and environmental experts from all over the US and Canada have come here to share their experiences on the changes in the environment where indigenous people have lived for over 20,000 years. This awareness and activism came to a head just 30 years ago, in 1988, when the first Gwich’in leaders met to discuss the impact of the oil companies in the Refuge. It was just one year later, in 1989, when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran into an Alaskan reef, spilling 38 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. That spill destroyed most of the sea life and the livelihoods of all the people who lived around that magnificent corner of Earth. It was a warning of what was still to come: in the Nigerian Delta, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dakota Access Pipeline (still leaking as of this essay), and other places around the world where oil spills and full-blown disasters have contaminated and destroyed entire ecosystems.
Every afternoon there are talks and teachings by experts, and the young people speak too. It is inspiring to hear the next generation talking about preserving the Gwich’in language, their traditions, and the practices that are linked to honoring and protecting the Earth. Ask any American hunter and he’ll say the same thing: hunting wild animals also means protecting the land, waters, and habitats in which those animals reside, because everything is connected and inseparable. This difference here is the hunter who takes only what he needs, as opposed to the oil corporation that takes everything they can possibly extract. This is the difference between the ecological hunter, and the extractive, destructive greed of the fossil fuel industry.
On the third afternoon of the conference, two very powerful women speak, one of whom is a woman from the Sarayaku people in the Ecuadorian Amazon. She speaks of how her tribe successfully fought off the illegal invasion of a foreign oil company on their indigenous lands. The women went first in the attack, their men following behind. The women disarmed the guards, took all the men’s clothing, and marched them out of their territory without a shot being fired. The Ecuadorian government was forced to admit their own collusion with the oil company, but these are the kinds of shady, illegal deals that happen all the time, where politicians are bought and sold like potatoes in a market.
Another indigenous woman from the Cordillera people of the Philippine highlands speaks about a mining company that is currently destroying her people’s land, who pay no royalties or reparations for the minerals they extract or the damage they cause, and who act with impunity as they pollute her people’s land. Again, it’s the same pattern we hear about in developing countries all the time, especially under authoritarian leaders like Trump, Putin, the Philippine’s Duterte, and the every-changing but always-corrupt Brazilian and Peruvian governments.
All of this legitimate frustration and anger is muted slightly in the evenings when the music starts up and the people begin to dance. At night in the large communal building, local musicians tune up their guitars and fiddles, people clear away the plastic picnic tables that have served as conference tables, and the floor is opened up. The music starts and it’s roughly the equivalent of what I would call a Texas two-step. The warm up songs consist of Rolling Stones covers, and because the word has gotten out that I am a drummer, I have been invited to sit in during the opening set. Unfortunately, no one dances to our rock & roll, but they leap out of their seats to dance ferocious jigs as soon as the fiddle music begins. It’s a total Arctic hoedown and everyone is laughing again.
The conference is now winding down and the village has begun to clear out. My flight leaves in a couple days but I want to get out on the land and learn a little more. I meet another gentleman, the Italian alpine skier Ario Sciolaria who, back in the winter of 2005-2006, skied the entire length of Alaska, from Valdez Sound all the way to the Inuit village of Kaktovic, about 4,000 kilometers to the north. He did this completely by himself, pulling a sled of camping supplies, and often snowshoeing when he couldn’t ski. It was a slow journey and it took him about 5 months to complete it, but Mr. Sciolaria did all of this to raise awareness about the Arctic Refuge. His book and documentary film are forthcoming and I’m sure it will be magnificent.
In the few hours that I spoke with Ario as we walked around the land, he spoke with eyes of wonder about the magical quality of the Refuge, where the northern lights illuminated the snow brighter than any light he carried. He encountered a pack of wolves that followed him with curiosity, and as Ario believes, protected him from a stalking grizzly bear. When he finally reached the north slope of the Refuge, he encountered the famously enormous caribou herds that inhabit that North Slope. It is a sacred place, full of life, death, and rebirth, but it is also where the oil companies want to drill, which will almost certainly scatter the herds, pollute the landscape, and permanently disrupt the balance of life that has existed here for tens of thousands of years.
Is this what 240 years of American sovereignty has brought us to? We ARE the people, all of us, and we have a duty to fight off these kinds of corporations, and vote out the politicians who would enrich themselves at the expense of our air, water, and land. Its time to take a stand, or we and our grandchildren will all be polluted, to death.
Barrett Martin is a Grammy-winning producer, composer, and renowned session drummer and percussionist who has played on over 100 Rock, Blues, Jazz, and World music albums. His work can be heard on albums by REM, Queens Of The Stone Age, Mad Season, Screaming Trees, Walking Papers, Tuatara, Blues legend CeDell Davis, and recording sessions that range from the Peruvian Amazon, to Brazil, Cuba, and even Jerusalem. He recently won a Latin Grammy for his production work on the Brazilian album “Jardim-Pomar.”