September 25, 2001 11:00 pm
Princess Peter-Raboff ().
Princess Peter-Raboff ().

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

When she was a child, her grandmother taught her how to tan caribou hide and find the plumpest wild blueberries.

Now the young woman travels to far-flung places to teach others about the importance of caribou in the lives of the Gwichin people.

Princess Peter-Raboff visited La Grande Tuesday to urge people to oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska.

The Gwichin people, who live in about 15 villages within and outside the refuge, for thousands of years have survived because of the caribou that travel from the mountains of northern Canada to a small area on the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean.

Peter-Raboff grew up in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, but spent many days with her family in Arctic Village. After studying at George Washington University, she became a screenwriter in Los Angeles, but her heart is in the village, where her younger brother is chief. She spends much of the summer helping in the village, where life is far different from city life.

In the village, people care for each other; you are known, she said.

The small villages (Arctic Village has a population of about 150) are spread out through many hundreds of miles. The nearest is about 30 minutes by air. Despite the remoteness, all villagers depend upon the caribou and other game, such as moose, for sustenance. In the extreme cold and rocky soil of the far north, growing vegetables is almost impossible. The caribou is the main source of food and hides for the people.

Since 1988, we have been charged by our chiefs to protect the caribou, Peter-Raboff said. Its an environmental and human rights issue.

Peter-Raboff has been traveling with Jody Kennedy and Melissa Waage, outreach workers for The Alaska Coalition of Oregon. The group presented a discussion, video and letter-writing session Tuesday evening at Eastern Oregon University.

Kennedy said the group visited La Grande to persuade people to write to U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., asking him to oppose drilling in Northern Alaska. Smith has indicated that he does not favor drilling in the refuge, but Kennedy said the recent terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon could work to change minds.

Kennedy said that finding and opening oil fields probably will take 10 years, and it is expected that only about six months worth of oil can be removed.

Peter-Raboff said her people believe that if oil drilling begins on the plains, the soil will become contaminated, poisoning the caribou and eventually poisoning the people.

If the caribou become endangered or extinct, the Gwichin way of life will end, she said. To prevent that, many of the Gwichin people including Peter-Raboffs mother who now lives in Washington, D.C., have become activists.

The House of Representatives has approved oil drilling in the refuge and President Bush has said he will sign legislation.

The Senate is the only barrier to drilling, Peter-Raboff said. We need Sen. Smiths support.

Village life moves at a slow pace, Peter-Raboff said. Children are being taught some of the old crafts and traditions, such as bead-making and tanning caribou hide.

When the hunt begins, the men, women and children of the villages move to a camping area near the animals migration route and prepare for the 150,000 to 200,000-member porcupine caribou herd.

Planning and organizing the hunt is very detailed, Peter-Raboff said. There are certain parts of the herd we dont kill specific animals. Theres an order of doing things; its not a free-for-all.

The hunt is considered a sacred event.

We believe the animal gave itself to us, she said.

In the village there is one building with running hot and cold water: the washeteria. Peter-Raboff said her brother, the chief, received grant money to install solar panels to heat the building and the water during the long summer days. Everybody in the village helped with the project.

We had kids hammering, screwing stuff together, she said. Everybody wants to see solar.

Using solar power is one way to reduce oil consumption, Peter-Raboff said. She supports a variety of conservation efforts.

Peter-Raboff doesnt like to talk about a future that includes oil wells on the coastal plain of the wildlife refuge.

I cannot say what well do. The tribal council and the villages would come together, she said. But the people are mostly

saying, Were not going to let that happen.