Seattle City Council Takes a Firm Stance Against Arctic Drilling, Weakens Indigenous Rights in the Process

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Landscape. Photo: Steven Chase/Wikimedia Commons

The council just passed a resolution, largely in the name of indigenous rights, boycotting any corporation that purchases a drilling lease for the ANWR coastal plain from the U.S. Department of the Interior. But policy analyst and indigenous rights expert Heather Exner-Pirot sees the measure as misguided and inappropriate. 


Social justice and environmental protection are rarely seen as being in conflict with one another, but such is the case for a recent action from the Seattle City Council, which voted unanimously on September 16th to pass Resolution 31903The resolution seeks to preclude the city from doing business with any company that engages in purchasing leases or developing oil fields in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Essentially, it boycotts any company that takes the Trump Administration up on its proposed Arctic drilling lease-sales.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, is located on the northeastern corner of Alaska and accounts for roughly 30,500 square miles (79,000 square km) of mountains, tundra, forest, plains and more. It is home to enumerable animal and plant species, and has also been home to indigenous human communities, including the Gwich’in, for thousands of years.

And as the U.S. government recognized in 2017, it is also believed to house abundant natural resource reserves, including oil and natural gas. That year, Congress catalyzed resource extraction by legalizing lease-sales for oil drilling on its 1.6 million square miles of coastal plain. This move has been highly contested because activists fear that it threatens the wellbeing of the refuge and its inhabitants, including the Porcupine Caribou population.

A delicate balance

A recent story from NPR addressed the seriousness of this concern. An estimated 200,000 Porcupine Caribou traverse the Canadian and U.S. Arctic every year. The herd regularly migrates to give birth in the ANWR coastal plain, the very place where drilling is now legal. Scientists are unable to predict definitively how oil development there would affect the caribou herd or their migration patterns.

While some disagreement exists over whether oil development can proceed without disturbing a delicate balance, a strong consensus exists amongst Gwich’in peoples that a serious disruption to the caribou population would put an end to their way of life.

Porcupine caribou herd in 1002 Area, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: United States Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons

David Smith, Jr., second tribal chief of Arctic Village in ANWR, told NPR that drilling will “change the migratory path of the caribou,” explaining that, “that’s going to change our very lifestyle. The reason we’re here is for the caribou.”

But other groups feel differently about Arctic drilling. For example, many Alaskan Inupiat have come to “embrace” the prospect of Arctic drilling, as well as the economic opportunities and development that would accompany it. An article in National Geographic describes how the Inupiat were “transformed by oil” from communities that relied on whale oil for heat and dog teams for transportation to communities with powerboats and trucks. Still, as with the Gwich’in, there is disagreement within the Inupiat community.

Constructive Advocacy or Instrumentalization

Council Member Mike O’Brien, who introduced the city council resolution, made clear that the council is taking a stance not only on environmental protection, but also indigenous rights.

Seattle City Council Member Mike O'Brien. Photo: Seattle City Council/Wikimedia Commons

He explained during the council meeting that the measure is “not just for the sake of this beautiful piece of land and the animals that live up there, but for the people, the Gwich’in, who live on the North Slope and for probably millennia have depended on subsistence hunting and a livelihood that they still live today. But that livelihood will be in jeopardy if these potential transactions go forward.”

While this statement does accurately reflect the viewpoint of a majority of the Gwich’in people, Heather Exner-Pirot, policy analyst and expert on indigenous rights, explains that this does not mean it is reflective of all indigenous groups involved. The result is a warped public perception that ends up excluding the very voices it seeks to highlight. 

While the resolution cites Gwich’in opposition to Arctic drilling on the coastal plain, it fails to include Inupiat support for that very thing. This cherry picking of indigenous perspectives is all too common among “southerners,” says Exner-Pirot.

“A big, wonky term that I've used before is to say that indigenous peoples are often ‘instrumentalized’ in these debates. So if you're inherently pro-development, you'll say "Oh, the Inupiat are pro-development." But if you're conservationist you'll say ‘well the Gwich'in are opposed to this.’ And I don't think it's coming from a genuine place of trying to support indigenous rights. I think it's about finding indigenous groups that align with your interests and using them to support your interests.”

Heather Exner-Pirot, policy analyst and expert on indigenous rights

The inevitable result is a skewed understanding of the issue. Exacerbating the problem is the common misconception that indigenous communities have no real representation and no real say in the issues affecting them. In reality, Exner-Pirot explains that Arctic peoples have successfully fought to secure the proper legal channels to have their voices heard, even if those channels are imperfect.

The U.S. Senate is the appropriate place 

She points out that debates over drilling in Alaska have already been raging in the Senate, and that is why the Seattle City Council’s attempt to address the matter is problematic.

“The U.S. Senate is an appropriate place for these debates to be held and voted on. They do have jurisdiction. And at least Alaska has some representation in the Senate and in Congress.”

While historically the U.S. and Canadian governments have taken a colonial attitude towards Arctic peoples, Exner-Pirot emphasizes that there have been significant changes.

They're no longer just passive victims. They don't get told what to do.
Heather Exner-Pirot

“People don't acknowledge or understand that in the past probably four decades, northern indigenous groups have gained much more self-determination. So they're no longer just passive victims. They don't get told what to do. They have legislative, and in Canada, constitutionally protected rights that allow them to make some decisions.

"That's the problem of public perceptions of the Arctic,” she explains. “To the average southerner, it's very black and white. And you think you're on the good side, the right side of history and all those things.”

An emerging “Savior Complex”?

This widely-accepted misperception feeds into a rapidly-emerging “savior complex” amongst those advocating for Arctic preservation. The savior complex is a phenomenon where bystanders suddenly see themselves as having a mandate to act in the perceived best interests of others, who they identify as being unable to help themselves. While on the surface a savior complex appears purely selfless, it actually transforms the recipient into an object, denying the individual the space to be an independent, decision-making agent.

By speaking for the indigenous Arctic communities through the resolution, the Seattle city council has actually diminished the power of their voice in more inclusive, appropriate channels like the U.S. Senate, Exner-Pirot advocates.  

For example, Council Member O’Brien’s statement that the “social license” to drill in the Arctic has been revoked by the American people (presumably in an effort to honor indigenous wishes) prevents the spectrum of real indigenous perspectives from being the primary focus.

Shell Oil's Polar Pioneer Arctic Drilling Rig as seen from Beach Drive, Jack Block Park, and Harbor Avenue. Photo: ChasRedmond/Wikimedia Commons
So all of a sudden it's the American people that get to say how development proceeds in the north, in the Arctic.
Heather Exner-Pirot

“So all of a sudden it's the American people that get to say how development proceeds in the north, in the Arctic” demands Exner-Pirot. “And it's a big, homogenous place, as if all people in that area agree, and it's just not fair.”

Even though southerners are primarily responsible for climate change and northernern have had to face the brunt of the consequences, Exner-Pirot laments, there is now a push to barr northerners from reaping any benefits from an industry that is still benefiting innumerable others around the world. Thus, what seems to be an effort to honor indigenous rights is actually quite harmful to groups wishing to take part in that aspect of the global economy.

"There's four million people that live in the Arctic that need jobs just as much as anyone else and so, in my opinion, it's not up to the people in the south to decide. There's no one in the Arctic making decisions on what can be done in Seattle and so it's not fair to impose their will. That's not right."


“You might agree, you might disagree, but the choice should not be ours to make. The ability to say "Yes" or "No" should be held with the local communities that are most affected,” she adds. 

Popular Opinion at Odds with Minority Rights

In fact, Exner-Pirot points to popular opinion about the Arctic as one of the primary threats to Arctic indigenous rights. She explains that certain measures, such as the Canadian moratorium on Arctic drilling, was done without properly consulting the affected indigenous groups because of political pressure from cities and urban areas further south.

So why is there such a focus on the Arctic? This is something that Exner-Pirot considers especially frustrating. One reason is the popular conception of the Arctic as a virgin territory, an untouched wilderness; not a place where people live and work. It’s also easy to talk about far off areas, instead of making difficult changes locally.

“How easy it is for people in Southern cities to be able to say "No" to all development in the Arctic that doesn't affect them, doesn't cost them anything.  Doesn't impose any compromise on their behalf.” So while the Seattle City Council resolution may be “an empty, symbolic gesture,” it does have very real consequences for indigenous people. So how does Exner-Pirot think the matter should proceed?

“This is such a polarizing issue… there's not going to be a compromise that satisfies all the players. I really think this should be, as much as it could, an indigenous government issue. As much as possible, I think the people most affected by the decision should be the ones with the most say.”

The issue is complicated, which is why it is so important to stay away from over-simplified narratives of good and evil. Climate change is real and it is in everyone’s best interests to make difficult but necessary changes. Holding ourselves accountable should also mean not getting lost in the frenzy and trampling minority right

This is such a polarizing issue… there's not going to be a compromise that satisfies all the players.
Heather Exner-Pirot