“I’ll work with Shell, but they try my patience,” Itta told me and described fears that kept him awake most nights. “What if it’s me,” he said, “who allows oil to flow, and there is an accident? If bowheads disappear, so will Iñupiat culture.”
But the flip side was, what if he stopped the oil. “My people would go back to 40 years ago,” he said. Itta walked an ice tightrope. Money for health care, housing, and schools came from taxes on oil companies. “I shudder to think what would happen if that [income] stopped,” he said.
This summer, the battle over Alaskan drilling will make headlines. For the past two years, I’ve watched the story unfold. At first, I thought Itta and the oilmen would remain antagonists.
What happened by 2012 was far more complicated.