By Stephanie Launiu
Hawaiian hula troupe, circa 1907
Many merely think of Hawai'i as the 50th state of the United States—a place where the weather is sunny all year long and there are hula dancers, beaches, luaus, surfers, and TV shows featuring women in bikinis, white sand shorelines, and waterfall backdrops. However, there's so much more to this land than what is depicted in pop culture.
This article will go far beyond what you thought you knew about Hawai'i. Read on to discover more about the relationship between the U.S., Hawai’i, and its native people. Even in the 21st century, the relationship is a complicated one that a majority of people have not yet learned about.
10 Things You May Not Know About Hawai'i
- Native Hawaiians are a race of people
- Hawaiians almost became extinct
- Hawai'i was an independent and sovereign nation
- Hawaiians quickly became literate after western contact
- Hawai'i's government was illegally overthrown by the United States of America
- Native Hawaiians tried to fight back
- The Hawaiian language was banned
- Queen Lili'uokalani wrote the famous song "Aloha 'Oe" ("Farewell to Thee")
- The U.S. officially apologized for the illegal overthrow
- Native Hawaiians are revitalizing their language and culture
#1 Native Hawaiians Are a Race of People
Native Hawaiians, also known as Kanaka Maoli, are the indigenous or aboriginal people (and their descendants) of the Hawaiian Islands. Their ancestors were the original Polynesians who sailed to Hawai’i and settled the islands around the 5th century AD.
“Native Hawaiian” is a racial classification used by the United States. In the most recent Census, 690,000 people reported that they were Native Hawaiian or of a mixed race that includes Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. There may now be as few as 5,000 pure-blood Native Hawaiians remaining in the world.
Hawaiians are not named for the state (think Californians, New Yorkers, Texans, etc). Unlike these other states, Hawai'i is named after its native people. Living in Hawai'i doesn't make you Hawaiian, it makes you a resident of Hawai'i.
Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli
#2 Hawaiians Almost Became Extinct
The first recorded western contact with Hawai'i was in 1778 when Captain James Cook, an English explorer, sailed on the HMS Resolution into Waimea Bay on Kaua'i. The next year he sailed into Kealakekua Bay in Kona on the Big Island of Hawai'i. It is estimated that between 400,000 and as many as one million Native Hawaiians were living on the major Hawaiian Islands when Cook landed in Hawai'i.
Because Hawai'i is a group of islands isolated from other land masses and people, diseases that afflicted the rest of the world were not known in Hawai'i. Within a century after Cook first landed, however, the Native Hawaiian population had been decimated, dropping down to about 40,000. Deaths were attributed to a number of "new" diseases including smallpox, measles, influenza, sexually-transmitted diseases, whooping cough, and the common cold.
Native Hawaiians by a road in the Puna District, Island of Hawai'i, 1895 (Courtesy of Lyman Museum, the Walker Collection, E.N. Hitchcock)
Native Hawaiian Family circa 1890
#3 Hawai'i was an Independent and Sovereign Nation
The Kingdom of Hawai'i was an internationally-recognized monarchy that entered into bilateral treaties of trade and friendship with other countries including:
- The United States (1826)
- Great Britain (1836)
- France (1839)
- Denmark (1846)
- Hamburg (1848)
- Sweden and Norway (1852)
- Tahiti (1853)
- Bremen (1854)
- Belgium and Netherlands (1862)
- Italy and Spain (1863)
- Swiss Confederation (1864)
- Russia (1869)
- Japan (1871)
- New South Wales (1874)
- Portugal (1882)
- Hong Kong (1884)
- Samoa (1887)
The Hawaiian Monarchy
#4 Hawaiians Quickly Became Literate After Western Contact
The first Christian missionaries came to Hawai'i in 1820. Soon after, Hawaiian children began attending school and learned to read and write in the Hawaiian language.
In 1869, a newspaper article reported that Hawai’i was the only government from the Pacific area to attend a Paris exposition. At the event, Hawai'i displayed newspapers, Bibles, textbooks, books of law, agricultural products, and other examples of "civilization."
Meanwhile, European visitors to the Islands were reportedly astounded that in Hawai’i, the common man was taught the same sorts of things that only the European elite of the time were entitled to learn.
Missionaries Preaching Under Kukui Groves, 1841
Hawaiian language newspapers were published in Hawai'i for over a century beginning in 1834 at Lahainaluna School on Maui. It is believed that the last newspaper in the Hawaiian language was Ka Hoku O Hawai'I, who printed their last issue in 1948.
A colorized photo of a gentleman reading "Ka Hoku o Hawaii" newspaper, which was a Hawaiian language weekly newspaper published in Hilo, Hawaii. Its founder was Rev. Stephen L. Desha, the kahu at Haili Church in Hilo for 40 years.
#5 Hawai'i's Government was Illegally Overthrown by the United States of America
On January 17, 1893, an illegal overthrow of Hawai'i's government took place. U.S. Marines from the USS Boston, two companies of U.S. sailors, and U.S. Government Minister John L. Stevens landed at Honolulu Harbor and, along with U.S. and European businessmen, effectuated an illegal coup against Queen Lili'uokalani.
What were their motives? Greed, control over cheap land, and control over the sugar industry. The businessmen and sugar planters were led by Sanford Dole, who some refer to as a "sugar baron." Sanford's cousin, James Dole, sometimes called the "pineapple king," began the pineapple industry in Hawaiʻi with his Hawaiian Pineapple Company. The Dole brand is undoubtedly familiar to you.
In the following years, Native Hawaiians were colonized and had to learn to live with their homeland being lost to the largest superpower in the world. This loss was accompanied by an endless influx of tourists and immigrants from other states and foreign countries. Additionally, Pearl Harbor was bombed during World War II because America used (and continues to use) Hawai'i for its Pacific fleet.
The USS Boston's landing force on duty at the Arlington Hotel, Honolulu, at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.
#6 The Hawaiian Language was Banned
Three years after the Hawaiian government was overthrown, a law was passed that made it illegal for school classes to be taught in anything but the English language. English replaced Hawaiian as the official language of government, business, and education.
So began the colonization of the Native Hawaiian people; children were punished in school for speaking Hawaiian, and those who spoke Hawaiian at home were ridiculed. This systematic suppression of Hawaiian culture and language took place for four generations, and the language was almost lost due to parents and grandparents who were uncomfortable passing the language on to younger generations.
It was not until a constitutional amendment passed in Hawai'i in 1978 (!) that it was once again legal to teach Hawaiian in the school system. Even then, Hawaiian wasn't taught in public schools until 1987, when a Hawaiian Immersion Program began. At the time, it was estimated that fewer than 1% of the population could speak Hawaiian. Today, UNESCO, a United Nations agency, classifies the Hawaiian language as "critically endangered", but according to the most recent American Community Survey, more than 18,000 people claim to speak Hawaiian at home. That's about 1.3% of Hawai'i's population. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless...
The College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani, was the first college in the United States administered and conducted entirely in an indigenous language. In 1999, Ka Haka ‘Ula began offering a Master’s degree that was followed in 2004 with a doctoral program in Hawaiian language.
Hawaiian schoolchildren, 1900 (Photo by Henry Wetherbee Henshaw)
#7 Native Hawaiians Tried to Fight Back
After the overthrow, Native Hawaiians tried to fight back through the U.S. legal system in the following ways:
- Requested an official investigation by the President Cleveland’s administration. Hawai'i became a U.S. protectorate at the same time that an investigation was being done by U.S. President Grover Cleveland at the written request of Queen Lili'uokalani. Cleveland and his administration concluded that the overthrow had been illegal ("a grievous wrong has been done") and turned the issue over to Congress where it languished while the “straw government” in Hawai'i, who now had Sanford Dole as its President, continued to gain a stronger hold over the islands.
- Launched a petition... Meanwhile, Native Hawaiians launched a massive petition to stop the formal annexation of Hawai'i to the U.S. They thought that if Congress realized that Native Hawaiians did not want to be part of the U.S., they would restore independence to Hawai'i. Public meetings were held on the five major islands, and of the known population of 39,000 Native Hawaiians, 21,269 signed the petition. This is an incredible majority since many of the remaining number were children.
- ...and took it all the way to Washington D.C. Queen Lili'uokalani traveled to Washington D.C. to present her protest and the petition to Congress. At the time, a trip of this distance took months by sea and land. Sadly, Queen Lili'uokalani's voyage proved to be a fruitless one. Congress had not acted on President Cleveland’s request, and a new Congress had come in with the administration of President William McKinley. By that time, the Spanish American War was brewing, and the U.S. didn’t want to give up Hawai'i's prime location in the Pacific.
In spite of the efforts of the Native Hawaiians and their Queen, Hawai'i was illegally annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898, along with 1.2 million acres of Hawaiian crown lands that had belonged to the monarchy and to the nation of Hawai'i.
Drawing: "Meeting of Natives at Hilo, Island of Hawaii, Thursday, September 16, 1897 to Protest Against Annexation."
#8 Queen Lili'uokalani Wrote "Aloha 'Oe"
Ironically, the only person who saw any jail time from the overthrow was Queen Lili'uokalani. In 1895, a clandestine group of supporters of the monarchy attempted an unsuccessful counter-rebellion against the government led by Sanford Dole. There was no bloodshed, but weapons were discovered on the grounds of the royal palace, and Lili'uokalani was found guilty of treason against the government that had illegally overthrown her. Although she was sentenced to five years of hard labor, she only served nine months of house arrest.
During this time of incarceration, she wrote several songs, but “Aloha ʻOe” ("Farewell to Thee") is her most famous composition. Lili'uokalani originally wrote "Aloha ʻOe" in 1878 as a love song, but it is now commonly sung as a farewell song.
The territorial government eventually voted to give her an annual pension of $4,000, though the United States never compensated her for personal lands that were taken.
Lili'uokalani died in 1917 at the age of 79. In her will, she ordered that all of her belongings be sold with the proceeds going to the Queen Lili'uokalani Children’s Trust for orphaned and indigent Hawaiian children. Her trust still operates today. A statue of Queen Lili'uokalani was erected on the grounds of the Hawai'i state capitol.
The statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani stands between 'Iolani Palace and the Hawaiʻi State Capitol.
Lili'uokalani died at the age of 79 in 1917.
#9 The U.S. Officially Apologized for the Illegal Overthrow
In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed an official apology to Native Hawaiians for the illegal overthrow of their nation. Public Law 103-150 was passed by a joint resolution of Congress in 1993 to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the overthrow. Stipulations in the law stated that:
- The overthrow was illegal. Section 1 states: "The Congress...on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893, acknowledges the historical significance of this event which resulted in the suppression of the inherent sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people" (italics added)
- The U.S. apologizes. "...to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893."
- Native Hawaiians may have legal claims against the U.S. "Nothing in this Joint Resolution is intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States."
President Bill Clinton signed the official apology to Native Hawaiians. In background, L to R - VP Al Gore, Sen Daniel Inouye, Rep Patsy Mink, Rep Neil Abercrombie, Sen Daniel Akaka.
#10 Native Hawaiians Are Revitalizing Their Language and Culture
Although they make up about 20% of Hawai'i’s population according to the most recent Native Hawaiian Data Book published by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), Native Hawaiians continue to work towards finding their rightful place in modern-day Hawai'i and regaining self-governance in some form. This includes rightful compensation for the illegal overthrow and a nation lost.
Here are some milestones and examples of their efforts:
- Governor John Waihe'e was the first elected governor of Hawai'i of Native Hawaiian ancestry. He served from 1986-1994.
- In 1987, instruction in the Hawaiian language began again in public schools. Today, 19 traditional public schools and six charter schools educate some of the state's public school students using the Hawaiian language to instruct in all subjects. Any student in Hawai'i may choose to participate in a Hawaiian language immersion program.
- A renaissance of the Hawaiian culture—including language, dance, arts, and traditional customs—began in the 1970’s and continues today. One such example is the weeklong Merrie Monarch Festival that takes place on the Big Island each year and celebrates the art of hula dancing.
- The HTA or Hawai'i Tourism Authority, a state agency once focused on bringing more tourists to Hawai'i, now works to ensure that Hawaiian cultural practitioners are more visible in the visitor industry. They support programs that spotlight the integrity and uniqueness of the Hawaiian culture to differentiate the Hawaiian Islands among visitor experiences, and to honor cultural authenticity.
Hālau Hula ‘O Nāpunaheleonāpua dancers, taught by Kumu Rich Pedrino (Photo by Cody Yamaguchi)
Hālau Keolakapuokalani dancers, taught by Kumu Drake Keolakapu Dudoit Delaforce (Photo by Bruce Omori)
Students from the University of Hawaii, West Oahu, where Hawaiian-Pacific Studies and Hawai’i culture is taught.
In today's Hawai'i, the turbulence of a people who love their nation is palpable. Opinion and fact sometimes collide, and the menace of generational colonialism continues to penetrate the hearts and minds of many. This turbulence is a natural reaction to more than a century of frustration with America's apparent disregard for native rights.
There are ongoing efforts to restore Hawai'i to its rightful place in the global community of nations. If you would like to learn more about Native Hawaiians, along with the sovereignty and de-occupy movements in Hawai'i, below are a few links to explore.
You have been forewarned: Everything you thought you knew about Hawai'i will be challenged. It is far more than sun and surf.
Relatively new on the political scene in Hawai'i is The Kānaka Party. It is a political grassroots movement by and for the people of Hawaiʻi. All are welcome to stand in Aloha, regardless of race, culture, national origin, creed, or sexual orientation. The Kānaka Party is about caring for the people; the environment and all creatures in it; promoting government accountability and transparency; hoʻoponopono (making right what is wrong) regarding the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi; and recognizing Ke Akua (the Divine). The Kānaka Party is committed to work within the U.S. political system to effectuate needed change that will benefit the people and future generations of Hawaiʻi.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Launiu lives in Hilo and is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle and cultural writer, who holds a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies from the University of Hawaii. As a community leader and activist, Ms. Launiu has served on local and regional boards which tackle the critical issues of Pacific Islander health, Native Hawaiian rights, women's rights, and prisoner reentry. As a professional grant writer, she is responsible for obtaining more than $15 million to benefit Hawaiian communities.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AND READING PROVIDED BY THE AUTHOR
- Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs
- Hawaiian Independence
- Hawaiian Kingdom
- Hawaiian Studies Program, University of Hawai'i at Hilo
- Hawaiian Studies Program, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
- Lili'uokalani Trust
- Office of Hawaiian Affairs
- Papa Ola Lokahi - Native Hawaiian HealthCare System
- Punana Leo Hawaiian Immersion Schools
- Ulukau.org - A Hawaiian Electronic Library
Wendy Red Star Gets the Last Laugh
by Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country
I first saw Wendy Red Star’s work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sprawling exhibit of native art that ranged from traditional – ledger drawings, headdresses- to wildly contemporary – video and photography. A large photo by Wendy Red Star made me look twice. Seated in a diorama setting with astro turf for grass and an obvious fake wallpaper backdrop, Red Star posed with a blow up deer and a sincere “I am one with nature” look on her beautiful face.
Red Star wore a traditional Crow elk-tooth dress. The elk-tooth dress, an iconic image of Crow culture is adorned with hundreds of reproduced elk teeth. Traditionally, the teeth were a symbol of wealth, as only two can be harvested from a single elk. So the juxtaposition of the sincere with faux takes this image to an otherworldly realm.
“The look pulls people in, but as you look closer you can see the image deteriorate, and if you are more privy to Native history you can see it right away,” Red Star says.
Born in Billings, Montana of Crow and Irish descent, Red Star was raised on the Crow reservation, she uses humor to confront romanticized representations. She poses popular depictions of Native Americans with authentic cultural and gender identities. Her groundbreaking work has been described as brash and surreal.
Her mother was a nurse who encouraged her daughter to pursue the Crow heritage. Her father ranched and was a licensed pilot who played in the “Maniacs”, an Indian rock band. Red Star is a niece of the artist Kevin Red Star who creates much more conservative native themed art.
In 2004, Red Star received her B.F.A. from Montana State University – Bozeman, majoring in sculpture, then earned an MFA from the University of California in Los Angeles. She now resides in Portland, Oregon.
She has continued to expand the media she works with to include photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance. She pores over archives and historical narratives to upend their perspectives, taking traditional norms and giving them an unexpected twist. The Four Seasons series, one of which was shown at the Met exhibit, is a prime example – you almost think she is just the model who doesn’t realize the absurd setting she has been asked to pose in until you realize she is the artist too and totally in on the joke.
Another series she created is the “White Squaw” a totally offensive line of mock magazine covers that mash up classic pulp images of noble savages with Red Star’s face smiling and leering in mock pin up mode.
She poses red and yellow painted coyotes with Indian blankets draped across their backs, and paints buckskin dresses black to take these traditional icons into a new unsettling realm. One series has gold deer with their heads cut off, gold tinsel streaming from the wound.
In an interview with Artnet about the Met show, Red Star said “I come from a humorous background, not just my Crow side, but my Irish side as well. I’ve always seen things through this ironic lens. I’m always laughing.
In my own Crow community, we have a whole policing system that uses teasing. To have that element in my work is quite Native, or Crow, and I’m glad that it comes through. It’s universal. People can connect with the work that way. Then they can be open to talking about race. As a brown person, as a brown artist, your work is political. Whether you like it or not. Even if you are doing abstract painting, as soon as someone finds out you’re brown they think, “This is about racism.” The first time I came across this was when I was in undergrad and I was erecting teepees around campus. I had discovered that Bozeman, Montana was Crow territory. I wanted everybody to know that this was Crow territory. I didn’t even think of it as political. I just thought, this is true. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they are saying it’s political because it’s against the colonial standard. I don’t aim to do political work, but it becomes political because it’s talking outside the colonial framework. There’s a whole notion of being ‘authentic. Your art is supposed to look like the 19th century, like we’re a dead culture that never evolved.”
“Wendy’s work isn’t about being a victim, or bemoaning colonialism,” says Terrance Houle, a Canadian artist of Blood and Ojibwe ancestry with whom Red Star has collaborated. “It has a definite Indian sense of humor, and it’s bright and beautiful, and that’s an aspect of indigenous culture people don’t often see.”
Red Star has exhibited in the United States and abroad at venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fondation Cartier pour l’ Art Contemporain, Domaine de Kerguéhennec, Portland Art Museum, Hood Art Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, among others. She served a visiting lecturer at institutions including Yale University, the Figge Art Museum, the Banff Centre, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Dartmouth College, CalArts, Flagler College, Fairhaven College, and I.D.E.A. Space in Colorado Springs. In 2015, Red Star was awarded an Emerging Artist Grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. In 2016, she participated in Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy at the Portland Art Museum, and recently mounted a solo exhibition as part of the museum’s APEX series.
On The Net:
Sandra Hale Schulman is an arts writer, curator and film producer. She is also a spokesperson for Native American causes on TV and radio.
Tribes and the U.S. Forest Service: Walking in Both Worlds
by Bobby Gonzales and Lou Thompson, Tribal Energy Resource, LLC
The Forest Service has a legal obligation to engage with Native American tribes. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) mandates that federal agencies “…consult with any Indian tribe that attaches religious and cultural significance to historic properties that may be affected by the agency’s undertakings”. The Forest Service policy is to establish and maintain effective relationships with tribes with respect to cultural resources.
The key to effective tribal engagement between the Forest Service and Native American tribes is to manage tribal interests while improving the stewardship of national forests. For the Forest Service or any federal agency, improving trust and collaboration with Native American tribes can be a daunting task. In order to meet that challenge head-on, the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest developed a Programmatic Agreement (PA) to simultaneously facilitate their management of heritage resources and engage tribal governments. Provisions in the NHPA allow federal agencies to use a PA to formalize and facilitate the tribal consultation process.
As part of the PA, the Forest provided a cultural resource training and certification program to several Native American tribes of the region. The Forest trained “tribal heritage technicians” to participate on archaeological crews performing archaeological field survey work required for Forest Service projects. By training tribal heritage technicians, the Forest began developing long-term, meaningful relationships with those tribes. Tribes have a wealth of traditional environmental knowledge which has been passed down through generations. The Forest has increasingly recognized the unique value of this knowledge, as some tribes are not opposed to forest management (tree harvesting, etc.), and many of them are highly effective forest managers providing thousands of jobs to tribal members.
The Ozark-St. Francis National Forest’s approach to tribal engagement is founded on our values and the principle of developing and maintaining collaborative, long-standing relationships. The Forest Service’s relationship building with Native American tribes is based on trust and respect and applying a flexible approach which respects the diversity of Native American cultures, their historic relationship to the land, and their unique legal status.
Editor’s Note: “Lessons from a Programmatic Agreement and Heritage-Based Consultations between Tribes and the National Forests of Arkansas and Oklahoma” recently published in the Journal of Forestry is available online.
Alaska Village Surrounded by Oil Fields Fears for Its Health
By Sabrina Shankman
Tribal members pay tribute to whaling crews after catching a 52-footer. (Photo Credit: City of Nuiqsut FB Page)
The Arctic landscape is devoid of color during the frozen days of February. There's the white of the tundra, the white of sea ice and often the sky, and the darkness of cold, long nights.
So when a wall of coffee-colored smoke rolled toward the small village of Nuiqsut in 2012, there was no mistaking—something was wrong.
Martha Itta, of the native village government, was at her desk when a colleague burst through the door and shouted "Check Facebook!" A worker on an oil well site 18 miles away, owned by the Spanish company Repsol, had posted a video.
"Rig's having a blowout here. They're evacuating the rig," the worker said as drilling mud and smoke spewed into the air and onto the tundra. "Ain't f---ing looking so good."
Itta scrambled to dial any authority she could think of—the North Slope Bureau, the EPA—to find out if Nuiqsut should be evacuated. "We weren't getting any answers," she said. Air monitoring in Nuiqsut is done by ConocoPhillips because it owns major drill sites just beyond town, but the monitor was down for routine maintenance at the time of the explosion.
Martha Itta saw her own young son struggle with respiratory illness and believes pollution blowing in from the North Slope's oil fields is raising the risks. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
"Our community was pretty much in panic mode. We didn't have any data—no air monitoring to show us what was out there in the air or if we should evacuate," Itta said. Villagers recall that dozens of people in the town got sick that day.
For many in this largely Inupiaq community, the Repsol disaster underscored their worst fears of a link between the oil drilling boom surrounding the town and respiratory illness.
It's not just blowouts that concern Itta now. She fears every-day pollutants in the wind, coming from vast drilling operations, turning the sky a hazy green some days and leaving black soot on the snow on others. When that happens, noses run and asthma flares up.
Nuiqsut is the only town planted in the midst of Alaska's most prolific oil region on the state's North Slope, which today is poised for another drilling boom. Just eight miles from the grid of single family homes, government offices, a grocery store and schools, more than 50,000 barrels of oil—or roughly a tenth of the state's oil production—is pumped each day from oil fields owned by ConocoPhillips. Repsol, Armstrong and Oil Search also have oil fields just outside town. Parents get a view of the newest well, three miles from town, when they drop their kids at school.
Nuiqsut, with about 400 residents, sits some 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Fossil fuel burning has already brought climate change to its doorstep. Arctic temperatures have risen twice as fast as the global average, changing the sea ice and affecting species residents rely on for hunting.
That number will balloon in the coming years as three new projects come online, including one that will go after an estimated 500 million to 3 billion barrels of recoverable oil. As the Trump administration clears the way for even more Arctic drilling, major companies have made more discoveries—oil the state hopes can revitalize its struggling economy.
Amid this development, Nuiqsut—where more than three-quarters of residents still live off the fish they catch, the whales they harvest and the caribou they hunt—has found itself on the frontlines of a modern crisis. Fossil fuel burning has already brought climate change to the town's doorstep, causing Arctic temperatures to rise twice as fast as the global average, changing the sea ice and impacting species that people rely on for hunting.
Emissions of black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant from fossil fuel production, accelerate the crisis, not just by exacerbating warming worldwide, but also by darkening the surface of Arctic sea ice, causing it to melt faster.
Black carbon brings health consequences of its own. It's a main ingredient in fine particulate matter, among the leading environmental causes of poor health and premature death. And it's just one of the pollutants from oil, gas and coal production that can impact health. The unique way these emissions interact in the Arctic—and their precise impact on human health—is only now beginning to be understood by scientists. In Nuiqsut, it's the issue.
Oil wells are visible from the streets of Nuiqsut, the only town in the heart of the North Slope's busy oil fields. The newest well is just three miles away. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
Tension between oil development and fears about public health exists in other pockets of the United States, from the Permian Basin in Texas to Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale. Up here—250 miles above the Arctic Circle, with no year-round road access—it's different. Ties that bind people to the land mean survival. Help is hundreds of miles away, and some here say decades of pleas for assistance have fallen on deaf ears—at times even from within the village.
"The development has proceeded too rapidly, without enough care for the health of the people from an air quality and subsistence perspective," said Pamela Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. "And now they're virtually surrounded."
The oil fields around Nuiqsut are poised for another drilling boom. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, who worked as a health aid in Nuiqsut from 1986 to 2000, saw the number of people treated for respiratory illness during that time rise from one to 75—an increase that far outpaced population growth—at the same time that wells crept closer to town.
The increase was stunning for a village of around 400 people, said Ahtuangaruak, who is now a health advocate for the community. But as she tried to raise awareness about it, she struggled to get any help. "Our voices are not being heard," she wrote in the Anchorage Daily News in 2003.
ConocoPhillips Alaska says it's aware of concerns in Nuiqsut and has worked with the community to investigate them. The company also insists that decades of its own air quality monitoring have not indicated a problem. "Our measurements show that the air quality of the North Slope, at all locations, is consistently better than national ambient air quality standards," said spokeswoman Natalie Lowman.
Studies done by various state and regional agencies, based largely on ConocoPhillips' data, attribute respiratory health issues to spikes in viruses, smoking, poor indoor ventilation and cars left idling for hours in freezing temperatures. Those things surely contribute to the problem, but Itta and other residents believe they are red herrings.
But as a single mom with seven kids (four of her own, two adopted and a grandson), Itta didn't see moving as an option. Instead, from her position as tribal administrator, she decided to find out more about what's in the air.
That meant bringing in an outsider to train Itta and others on how to monitor air themselves.
In mid-2012, Miller from Alaska Community Action on Toxics came to Nuiqsut. She was showing seven people how to use monitoring equipment when a board member of the local corporation burst into the room.
Kuukpik Corporation owns land around the village and contracts with oil companies that want to drill there.
Itta remembers the Kuukpik board member demanding of Miller, "Who are you guys? Who invited you here? No environmentalists."
The board member left and Miller continued the training, but she noticed the mood had changed. "I think the people there felt embarrassed and intimidated."
Contestants waiting their turn for the geese calling competition at the annual spring festival. (Photo Credit: City of Nuiqsut FB Page)
Miller was not surprised that no one ended up using the monitors she left behind.
Kuukpik Corporation wields a particular kind of power here. Some of its 250 shareholders are elders who resettled Nuiqsut in 1973, after years of forced relocation by the federal government. Now, with an array of subsidiaries operating drilling and oil services for oil companies, it's one of the largest employers around.
"That's really why I think they haven't been able to sustain a community-based monitoring program," Miller said. "There could be retribution against anyone who's trying to collect in-depth information."
That fear is reflected in a report by the state Department of Health and Social Services. In May 2012, an Anchorage-based attorney with the Trustees for Alaska heard that a number of Nuiqsut residents were having trouble breathing after seeing smoke from the Alpine Field. "She stated that Nuiqsut residents and health aides were 'afraid of retribution' if they reported this, so she was reporting this information," the report said.
Pollution Footprint Each Step of the Way
Though oil companies have made strides in decreasing emissions since the early, anything-goes days of North Slope development, air pollution remains a byproduct of drilling.
Back when she was a health aid, Ahtuangaruak recalls the sense of foreboding when she'd drive to the Nuiqsut clinic and see two dozen stacks flaring gas. "Those were the nights I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep," she said. "One person would have trouble breathing, and another would be in before I had finished treating the first. Next thing you know it's 7 a.m. and I haven't gone home for the night."
"Our voices are not being heard," Rosemary Ahtuangaruak wrote in 2003. Her fears for the health of people living in this region haven't subsided. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
Each step in the extraction process on the North Slope can yield pollution, from diesel generators that keep operations running, to flares burning off excess gas, to trucks barreling down the ice roads.
Stacks that flare off gas like 24/7 pilot lights can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Larger flares spew black carbon. Methane can leak from equipment throughout the production process. Studies show that methane exposure can cause headaches and dizziness. VOCs can damage kidneys and the nervous system and cause vision and respiratory problems. Some VOCs cause cancer.
Mixed with sunlight, some VOCs form ground-level ozone, which accelerates climate change. Respiratory distress triggered by ozone causes roughly 150,000 deaths each year. A nationwide study, published in 2016, found ozone pollution from oil and gas production causes more than 750,000 summertime asthma attacks in children.
One source of pollution in the region is flaring that burns off excess natural gas during the extraction process at oil facilities. These stacks can emit volatile organic compounds and black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant, that can damage health. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
And then there's the black carbon in fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5. The microscopic particles can lodge deep in the lungs, aggravating asthma and breathing problems and contributing to heart disease. A 2015 study by the World Health Organization found that regular exposure to outdoor PM 2.5 causes an estimated 3.7 million premature deaths each year.
"It's the long-term exposure that causes the more serious cardiovascular, cancer and chronic respiratory conditions," said Susan Anenberg, a public health professor at George Washington University studying health effects of air pollution in the Arctic.
Oil spill response teams stationed in the region are a reminder of another environmental risk. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
Kerri Pratt is an atmospheric chemist who studies pollutants in the Arctic, and she's been trying to find funding to study Nuiqsut's air quality. "The preliminary data we looked at said they go out of compliance every so often, but I think there are a lot of open questions," Pratt said.
Until Pratt and others began their work, decades had passed with little research on North Slope air pollution. In the early 1990s, atmospheric scientist Dan Jaffe, then at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, found that emissions from Prudhoe Bay were similar to those in Washington, D.C. He also found that pollutants were travelling hundreds of miles west to Utqiagvik, right over Nuiqsut.
Ice road trucks that run in and out of the oil facilities along the North Slope add more pollution to the air. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
Research shows the closer people live to oil and gas drilling, the more likely they are to suffer health effects. But in the Arctic, certain climate phenomena could mean those living further away might also be affected, according to Julia Schmale, an atmospheric scientist with the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland.
Cold Arctic air can sit near the surface, with warmer air higher in the atmosphere. This can trap pollutants closer to ground level causing them to build up over a wide area. "You have a situation where a village 10 miles away will really feel or be exposed to the emissions," she said. This could pose a double whammy for Nuiqsut, with oil fields in its backyard and also for hundreds of miles.
Schmale and Anenberg have teamed up to study the intersection of public health, climate change and air pollution in the Arctic, an area Schmale said features "a huge gap of knowledge."
"Normally people think of the Arctic as a very clean environment—it's remote, it's sparsely inhabited," she said. "But if there is human activity, there are human emissions."
Sympathy for Villagers and Their Cloud of Fear
Despite the fear of reprisal, some concerned residents in Nuiqsut have spoken out.
Ahtuangaruak has taken their stories to national audiences—like the American Public Health Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to Congress, where in 2011 she testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Itta and others have sought help within Alaska, including a lawsuit that successfully delayed an oil project while demanding further evidence that the benefits outweighed potential impacts. Although the project was completed, Itta and her neighbors discovered they could fight back.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker met with residents in Nuiqsut in March. He talks about the need to address climate change but supports drilling for more oil. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
But as residents seek answers, they have learned that when it comes to industrial pollutants and health, drawing connections between symptoms and causes is difficult. Barbara Trost, who manages the air monitoring and quality assurance program at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said she and other state officials are well aware of the concerns in Nuiqsut.
ConocoPhillips runs the air monitoring station in Nuiqsut, Alaska. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
Trost was in Nuiqsut last summer for a public meeting organized by the federal Bureau of Land Management. "I was really stunned when I was up there in July to hear the fears that are so pervasive in the community that it even impacts the teenagers," she said. "I get it. I don't think any one of us would want to live in an environment where we're surrounded by industry."
The financially strapped state can't afford to conduct its own monitoring in Nuiqsut, according to Trost, but she occasionally sees data from ConocoPhillips' air monitoring station.
That data shows occasionally heightened levels of larger particulate matter (PM10), which Trost attributes to natural sources, and levels of other pollutants that are far below EPA standards. She knows the community doesn't trust air monitoring by ConocoPhillips, but said there is no reason to believe it's inaccurate.
For years, community members asked for monitoring of VOCs like benzene, which can cause cancer. In response, ConocoPhillips began a VOC monitoring study in 2014, and, like its other air monitoring, found nothing alarming.
At the request of InsideClimate News, Trost reviewed a report of the VOC monitoring that covered April to August 2017. She found that the methodologies used in the lab analysis were in line with EPA standards, but pointed to some differences in how ConocoPhillips monitors VOCs in Nuiqsut versus standard practice in the lower 48 states.
Pipelines and oil production facilities follow the ice roads along the North Slope, including around Nuiqsut. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
"Sampling is conducted only for two to three hours," Trost said. In the rest of the country, she said, samples are typically taken for a 24-hour period. The shorter sampling period was probably the only option, Trost said, due to costs and difficult weather in Nuiqsut.
Schmale, the atmospheric scientist, also reviewed the report and said that from a scientific perspective, the monitoring "would ideally be done with real-time instrumentation" so it could capture variability over time.
Lowman, of ConocoPhillips Alaska, said the company is confident in its sampling, adding that there are technical problems with 24-hour sampling during the Arctic winter.
Unclear Why Respiratory Sick Visits Increasing
The state has twice studied Nuiqsut clinic visits to see whether cases of respiratory illness were on the rise—and if so, why. It found no clear evidence that pointed to the oil industry.
Each study examined the visits differently—the first looked at aggregated data from 1998 to 2002, while the second looked at just the first four months in 2011 and 2012.
Breaking all the visits down into monthly averages, the number of monthly clinic visits in 2011 and 2012 were, respectively, 10 and 14.5 times higher than the earlier study. The state report attributed the 2012 numbers to a particularly bad flu season, but did not explain why the 2011 were also high.
"The development has proceeded too rapidly, without enough care for the health of the people from an air quality and subsistence perspective," said Pamela Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. "And now they’re virtually surrounded." (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
Yoder said the two studies can't be directly compared because they were looking at different things. "The methodology was different," she said, though she could not point to specific differences.
In the years between the state's studies, ConocoPhillips' Alpine oil field hit its stride. After beginning regular production in 2000, the field grew to include more than 135 wells by the time the second study was taking place.
Worries Mount in Nuiqsut
A few days after the Repsol blowout, Sam Kunuknana remembers his then-wife and young daughter arriving home after a short walk from the teen center. It was a cold, February day—33 below and foggy, with a wind coming from the direction of the well, which still hadn't been fully plugged.
"It was just like a 10-, 15-minute walk," said Kunuknana. "They came home and they got really sick." His daughter's temperature spiked, her ears hurt and she was in a lot of pain. They raced her to the clinic, where they received a diagnosis of the common flu or cold. ConocoPhillips' monitor began taking continuous measurements again the evening after the blowout, following its scheduled maintenance. The pollutants it was monitoring were at near-normal levels, the state reported.
Sam Kunuknana remembers how after the Repsol blowout, his young daughter became ill after walking outside. (Photo Credit: Sabrina Shankman)
It took more than a month for both Kunuknana's daughter and former wife to feel better. "To this day, I think my ex still has that cough," he said. He believes it was the blowout that made them sick, just as he believes the flaring and haze that settles over town makes it harder to breathe some days.
In December 2017, there was a massive lease sale in nearby state lands and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The big winners were ConocoPhillips and Repsol. Those lease sales, along with other recent discoveries around Nuiqsut, have landed the region the nickname "the new Prudhoe Bay."
"When you talk about environmental justice, you talk about human rights, about future generations that will be dealing with industry as they move forward," Kunaknana testified recently at the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal, an international human rights forum where Nuiqsut's concerns were discussed. "I don't have a degree in anything, but I do understand what's going on."
Learn More About Inside Climate News at www.insideclimatenews.org
• • •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sabrina Shankman is a reporter for InsideClimate News focusing on the Arctic. She joined ICN in the fall of 2013, after helping produce documentaries and interactives for the PBS show "Frontline" since 2010 with 2over10 Media. She is the author of the ICN book "Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World," and was named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists for that work. Shankman has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
Pipeline Stance Complicates Heitkamp's 2nd Term Senate Hopes
By JAMES MacPHERSON
STANDING ROCK SIOUX RESERVATION, N.D. (AP) _ Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun went door to door on North Dakota's largest American Indian reservations in 2012 turning out the tribal vote to help put Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in the U.S. Senate. Six years later, with Heitkamp fighting hard to win a second term, Hunte-Beaubrun is staying on the sidelines.
She is among Indian voters who say they've lost their zeal for Heitkamp over her perceived non-stance on the Dakota Access pipeline, which brought thousands of American Indians and others to the state in 2016 and 2017 to protest its construction under the Missouri River, just outside Standing Rock.
``It was really a kick in the stomach,'' Hunte-Beaubrun said. ``We rallied so hard for her, but when her hand was forced she basically sold out to big oil.''
Democrats' hopes to capture the Senate depend heavily on Heitkamp, who has trod a careful path on energy and other issues to win office and remain popular in a deeply conservative state. But she faces a stern test from the state's lone U.S. House member, Republican Kevin Cramer, in a race seen as a top pickup chance for Republicans.
Heitkamp's first victory came by fewer than 3,000 votes, and American Indians, who tend to vote Democratic, were a source of strength. Three counties with majority Indian populations _ Sioux, Rolette and Benson _ backed Heitkamp by a more than 4,000-vote margin over then-U.S. Rep. Rick Berg. In Sioux County, home to the Standing Rock reservation, Heitkamp took 83 percent of the vote.
Once in the Senate, Heitkamp earned respect from American Indians for her knowledge of issues important to them, such as domestic violence in Indian Country and the relationship between tribal governments and the federal government. The first bill she introduced established a commission to study the challenges facing Native American children, an issue she had pursued since the 1990s when she was North Dakota's attorney general.
Then came the Dakota Access pipeline, a $3.8 billion project by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to move oil from North Dakota's rich Bakken fields to a shipping point in Illinois. The pipeline offered oil companies a cheaper way to get their product to market, was seen as safer than rail shipping and had the support of most state leaders.
The Standing Rock tribe opposed it as a threat to water. Their protest grew into a national event for environmental advocates, and pipeline opponents frequently clashed with police. In the ensuing months, Heitkamp's public statements didn't take a position on the pipeline, instead typically urging courts and federal officials to resolve uncertainty around the project while supporting protesters' right to demonstrate.
On Standing Rock, a 3,600-square-mile reservation that straddles the Dakotas border, there are few industries besides a casino. The reservation is home to about 10,000 people, and unemployment runs as high as 20 percent. In several interviews, some residents remained loyal to Heitkamp and said they would support her. Others said they were disappointed and would not.
``The majority of the people here feel the same way I do _ she chose oil over Indians,'' said Joe Torras, a 57-year-old rancher and horse trainer at Standing Rock. ``Once you damage that trust, we will never let it go. You only get one shot.'' Torras said he isn't planning to vote in November.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Heitkamp highlighted her work on Indian issues, saying no one in the delegation has been a ``stronger advocate.'' Of the pipeline, she said: ``My interest was keeping everybody safe.''
``When you look at the choices you make in this job, not everybody always is going to agree with you,'' Heitkamp said. ``I will continue to work on things we can all agree on.''
Char White Mountain, a 67-year-old retired office administrator and great-grandmother, said she voted for Heitkamp previously but won't again. She would never vote for Cramer, who strongly supported the pipeline, and said she will probably just stay home on Election Day.
``We all thought a lot about Heidi, but I believe she betrayed our people,'' said White Mountain. ``We really needed someone we could trust.''
Mary Louise Defender Wilson, 87, a writer and retired educator, said Heitkamp was in a no-win situation on a pipeline protest that she said was hijacked by outsiders.
``I think she was right not saying anything about that pipeline _ there were some really bad things that happened there and it distracted from our real issues,'' Defender Wilson said. She campaigned for Heitkamp six years ago and will again, planning to hand out brochures and post yard signs at her home in Porcupine, a tiny community of fewer than 150 people on Standing Rock.
Former Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault, who was the face and voice of the fight against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, said he met with Heitkamp when the pipeline was first proposed and long before the protests ``to let her know this was going to be an issue for us.''
``I think she was caught in the middle. But when her hand was forced, she chose the pipeline,'' Archambault said. ``She always said she supported Indian Country, but when all of Indian Country from across the nation was at Standing Rock _ she didn't show up.''
``She didn't truly listen to what Indian Country was saying,'' Archambault said. ``Now she's in a bind.''
Hostiles: An Unflinching Look at History
By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country
Boasting an all-star cast and an unwavering commitment to authenticity, the new film Hostiles takes place in 1892 and tells the story of an Army Captain (Christian Bale) who reluctantly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. On the treacherous journey they meet a widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was murdered on the plains by Apache and offer their help.
As the former rivals make their way from an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico to the mountainous lands of Montana, their relationship moves from antagonism to compassion, demonstrating humans’ capacity for change. The ensemble cast includes Ben Foster, Timothée Chalamet, Jesse Plemons, Q’orianka Kilcher, Rory Cochrane and Adam Beach. Kilcher and Bale previously worked together in 2005’s The New World with Kilcher portraying Pocahontas.
Studi steals the film with his noble profile speaking volumes as his dying character comes to grips with mortality and morality. He waged war on the invading whites but has now become a symbol of the pride and nobility of the indigenous, given a last chance at grace by US President Harrison who allows him a passage home.
But the way home is never easy, attacks from both warring tribes and drunken fur trappers litter the path.
To ensure authenticity in the Native-focused content of the movie, director Scott Cooper worked with acclaimed Native filmmaker Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals, Skins), and Native academic Dr. Joely Proudfit as consultants. Their organization, The Native Networkers, has a mission to build bridges of understanding through media and enhance cultural knowledge and understanding through Native representation.
The involvement of Eyre, Proudfit, and the film’s other Native consultants made an indelible impression on Cooper.
“The consultants on this film have been extraordinary and have taught me things that my research never could have,” he says. “They were on set every day to help the actors with language, with gestures, with rituals. Their work was of the utmost importance, and it was deeply gratifying for all of us.”
I reached out to Proudfit and Eyre who were busy at Sundance Film Festival but took time to answer some questions.
How did Native Networkers get involved with Hostiles?
We were told Scott Cooper was looking for Cheyenne consultation going into production of his movie HOSTILES and we were given the script to read. After reading the script we thought, if Scott can pull this off, we’d love to work on this movie consulting. We meet with Scott and his production team and we were hired as The Native Networkers.
What was the biggest challenge in making the film authentic?
We saw it less as a challenge and more of an opportunity to share, listen, learn and collaborate. It was refreshing to work with Scott Cooper a director who was open to ideas and collaboration. The biggest challenge in making HOSTILES Native portions of the movie authentic were finding the right Cheyenne people to work with The Native Networkers. Usually, cultural people don’t work in movies and movie people aren’t specifically used to Cheyenne culture, so our job was to bridge the two together and oversee that for the benefit of the movie.
Finding the right cultural consultants to work on the project was important to us. There is no one size fits all. We wanted to focus on adding authenticity to the story therefore finding the right cultural consultants was important. We had several cultural consultants both men and women. It was also important to us to acclimate the various parties on how best to work together, providing a comfort level for a cultural exchange to happen that deepens the level of storytelling.
What was your take on the theme of the film that “we are all hostiles”?
The theme provides for the conversation about the complexity of humanity. I think the metaphor is accurate as we are all that in someone else’s eyes. This is a brutal yet beautiful film that honestly and realistically addresses some very hard themes. As Native Americans, it’s a struggle to merely be seen in media as human beings, multi-dimensional people. Often, we have been relegated to stereotypes or binary characters. Westerns of the past had a lot to do with the dehumanization of how Indians are presented. With the film HOSTILES, the director used the theme “we are all hostiles” to allow for a deeper dive into humanity which moves beyond the confines of race. I think this theme at this time in our country is a critical one, stimulating conversations about forgiveness, reconciliation, family, humanity resonating with audiences from all walks of life.
The makers of Hostiles went to great lengths to solicit completely authentic Native input on both sides of the camera, and should be rewarded for that effort with the full support of the Native community. We should all run to the theatre to see this film. We applaud Scott Cooper and his team for tackling these themes as honestly as he did. I hope this film inspires more storytelling from and with Native American storytellers either leading the effort or in collaboration with filmmakers open to our stories.
Hostiles is now available on DVD and Video on Demand (VOD)