In one of the most unforgettable scenes in Dances With Wolves, tens of thousands of buffalo thunder across the vast plains of the 19th-century American Midwest. The image was quite a feat for the film's cinematographers, because those thundering herds, of course, no longer exist--victims, along with the people dependent on them for survival, of one of the greatest animal slaughters in history.
Magnificent herds of that scale still thunder across the prairie in this country, but they're not in the midwestern plains--and they're not buffalo. Hundreds of thousands of caribou--"reindeer"--still roam the expansive tundra of Alaska's North Slope. And native people still depend on these wild animals for their food, their spirituality, their very survival.
These Indians--the Gwich'in tribe of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada, the northernmost Indian nation on the continent--have for 10,000 years coexisted with the caribou.
"We are caribou people," Sarah James, a Gwich'in spokesperson from Arctic Village, Alaska, said. "We still do caribou dance, sing caribou song, wear the hide, use bone for tools, and tell the story. Caribou is how we get from one year to another."
Lately the Gwich'in have become key players in a high-stakes drama. An unfortunate coincidence has propelled this group of 7,000 aboriginal people to center stage: American oil companies want to drill for black gold in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Porcupine (River) caribou go each year to give birth. The oil companies are hoping for a windfall from the Arctic Refuge, where profits could be as much as $20 billion if they "hit it big"--although the chances are only one in five of finding oil in an amount equal to what the country consumes in a mere 200 days.