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What You Don’t Know About The Willow Project

Above Photo: Jane Hughes looks into the camera next to her father and sister as they sit in front of their home in Nome, Alaska. Bella Piacente and Jane Hughes.

The Native Perspective.

On March 13, 2023, President Biden approved the Willow project, an oil drilling venture by the large crude oil producer, ConocoPhillips, occurring on Alaska’s North Slope. The proposed drilling area is believed to hold 600 million barrels of oil, which will be extracted from three different drill pads. While there is no exact date for the project to begin, construction is set to commence at any time and will continue for decades.

The detrimental climate impact is by far the project’s most severe effect. However, the media is ignoring a crucial factor: the drill site sits next to the Nuiqsut tribe, an Inupiaq community that strongly opposes the Willow project. This project will produce deadly toxins that will directly impact Nuiqsut residents and destroy the land that they depend on for hunting, fishing, and harvesting. The Nuiqust tribe and the Native community are living as a modern example of colonization, most directly and deeply affected by the Willow project.

The impact of this project cannot be understood without knowing the history of Alaska Natives. My grandmother, Jane Hughes, was born in Nome, Alaska. When she was seven, the government deemed her parents, who worked and hunted all day, unfit to take care of her and her 12 siblings. The government took them from their home and placed them throughout different orphanages in Alaska. My grandmother ended up in the Jesse Lee Home in Seward, “the home for displaced children.” This home was affiliated with the Methodist Church, which enforced its teachings on the children, wiping many, including my grandmother, of their nativeness. To this day, my grandmother remembers very little about her time before the Jesse Lee Home, as they forcibly separated her from her home, family, and all that made her native.

My grandmother is among the millions of Alaska Natives who have been pulled from their indigenous roots. These are the people that have protected and nurtured the land in Alaska. They’re the ones who hunt and forage for survival, only taking what they need from nature. And yet they are silenced and taken from their own land. Society has normalized this, and now in the face of something that is going to kill our planet, we can’t stay silent any longer.

While the Nuiqust tribe is facing the most consequences from the Willow project, all Alaska Natives will suffer a tremendous loss. But this isn’t the first loss they’ve endured, as Alaska Natives have been plagued by oil drills for more than a hundred years.

The first oil well in Alaska was completed in 1902. The search for oil continued until oil companies found that Alaska holds roughly one-fifth of the nation’s crude oil production, or in other words, 1,800 active wells. Oil companies like ConocoPhillips have gentrified Alaskan lands for their own profit, not giving any thought to the Natives or the environment.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred, where 11 million gallons of oil were spilled into Prince William Sound, killing thousands of species that inhabit the land and poisoning a major food source for the Native people in that area. 30 years later, large oil companies continue to repeat these neglectful and heartless catastrophes –  the newest one being the Willow project.

These disasters have contributed to Alaska’s status as the fourth most polluted state in the United States, quite literally making the land toxic and uninhabitable for Natives to live on. With every disaster that has occurred so far, Alaska Natives have fiercely protested against the abuse of their land.

Grassroots organizations like the Alaska Native Oil and Gas Working Group have called to end new oil and gas developments in Alaska, rallying Natives to petition alongside them. These groups and Native activists tirelessly fight the government’s unfair land regulations, specifically targeting the 1971 Alaska Claims Settlement. The settlement supposedly orders the Bureau of Land Management to return 45.5 million acres of public land to Native corporations – Native organizations see this as performative activism, and even worse, a scheme that allows the companies to reclaim the land through corporate loopholes. The Alaska Native Oil and Gas Working Group has brought significant attention to this issue, but apparently not enough to prevent the approval of the Willow project.

As a response to the Willow project, Alaska Native activists traveled thousands of miles to the White House to protest against the destructive impacts it will have on their people and their land. They fought and continue to fight against the corruption of the oil industry and its supporters.

My grandmother, the people of the Nuiqsut tribe, Alaska Natives, and every Native American voice needs to be heard. They need not only be listened to, but deserve attention and a sincere apology. There needs to be accountability and action to preserve not only this land but the people on it.

In an article from the Scientific American, Siqiñiq Maupin, an Inupiat activist, said, “The Biden administration’s approval of the ConocoPhillips Willow project makes no sense for the health of the Arctic or the planet and comes after numerous calls by local communities for tribal consultation and real recognition of the impacts to land, water, animals, and people.”

Alaska Natives are the silent sufferers of the Willow project. While people rally around climate rights, there is no one to advocate for simply the existence of Native Americans. When my grandmother first heard about the project, she said that most non-natives in Alaska thought the Willow project would be beneficial and create jobs for those who need them. Her response was, “there will be more jobs, but never for the Natives.” She feels defeated, like many Natives, who have to fight just to exist on their own land. After we exchanged many words of frustration about the lack of Native recognition, our final thoughts were the same: why is it that we hear about everyone else, but the Natives?

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