Photo by Chris Stenger on Unsplash
In the Arctic, changes to the climate and biodiversity are leading to irrevocable losses of cultural identity and livelihoods for Indigenous peoples. Regardless, new projects for fossil fuel extraction continue to be approved in the area, including the massive oil drilling venture known as “the Willow Project.”
This blog post seeks to shed light on the complexity of local Indigenous viewpoints regarding Willow. Inuit perspectives are far from unanimous, and some have even argued in support of the project. This multiplicity of Inuit viewpoints underlines the importance of including Indigenous peoples in early planning and decision-making, rather than simply assuming their standpoints based on essentialist stereotypes of Indigeneity.
What is Willow?
The Willow Project is a massive oil drilling venture operated by ConocoPhillips on Alaska’s North Slope in the National Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government. The Trump administration had originally approved five drilling areas in 2020, but, due to a court order in 2021, this was reduced to three sites. Finally, the Biden administration, acting in direct contradiction to presidential campaign promises to stop oil drilling, approved the project. Thus, local residents to the area could not have had their voices heard in the matter by voting. Furthermore, the local Indigenous groups, who are most affected by the project, only represent 5% of voters in Alaska, minimizing their voices drastically.
Willow will release devastating amounts of emissions. Environmental groups have estimated that over the course of 30 years it would generate an amount of carbon pollution equal to driving roughly 56 million cars for one year. This will contradict efforts to reach emission reduction targets and keep global warming below 1.5ºC.
Mapping Inuit perspectives: Viewpoints against Willow
Collective organizations representing Inuit perspectives tend to oppose Willow. Among strong opponents is the Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA), which has prepared an action against Willow. According to SILA, Willow is incompatible with combatting the climate crisis and poses threats to ecosystem health, local food security, and mental wellbeing, which can, for example, increase suicides in Arctic Slope communities, and would give little to no jobs to local residents. Based on these risks, 38 Indigenous-led organizations have signed a letter to stop Willow. Further, the Native Village of Nuiqsut has confronted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for ignoring local concerns and mistranslating them in order to move forward with the project.
Considering how the survival of Indigenous peoples’ traditions in Alaska is threatened not only due to settler colonialism, but also rapid environmental change, it seems logical for Alaskan Inuit to oppose the Willow project.
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Mapping Inuit perspectives: Viewpoints in support of Willow
Indigenous peoples’ viewpoints should not be reduced to only those expressed by Native organizations or councils, as there is diversity of thought within these communities. Some Indigenous people see potential benefits in the Willow Project, including the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat’s President Sayers Tuzroyluk, who highlights that responsible Arctic development provides job opportunities for communities and a revenue base that enables municipal governments to provide basic services. Similarly, some see Willow as vital for Alaska’s economy, America’s energy security, and further to the modernization of the North Slope region. They emphasize the rights of Native people to extract resources on their own land, while also pointing out long histories of colonization.
Taking a moderate stance, the village corporation for Nuiqsut, Kuukpik, has collaborated with the BLM on developing a version of Willow that it could support. Kuukpik seeks to pursue possibilities of economic growth while cherishing cultural heritage, specifically through looking beyond typical oilfield jobs and fostering culturally-appropriate revenue sources.
These viewpoints in support of Willow indicate that like any other people, Indigenous individuals and communities may seek to increase their prosperity through economic activities, including the exploitation of land resources. It is also an indisputable fact that colonization and the fragmentation of Indigenous lands have undermined the profitability of many traditional livelihoods, so that today’s Indigenous peoples have no choice but to seek alternative sources of income for their livelihoods.
Colonial and Environmental Injustice
Since the first contact of explorers in the 1600s, the Inuit and other Natives have faced a radical reorganization of their socio-environmental systems. Although this change was prompted by settler-colonialism, we cannot assume that all Indigenous people prefer a pre-colonial status quo. By denying Indigenous peoples the right to decide if/when to develop or industrialize their land, the settler state forces them into harmful stereotypes of primitivism. This case study demonstrates precisely how Inuit people have diverse opinions of land governance, undermining the essentialized stereotypes that have been imposed on them.
Regardless, it is impossible to ignore the harm that would come from adding an additional 277 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, in direct contradiction to international agreements to reduce carbon emissions. As with all climate actions, the first to experience the consequences will be those on the frontlines – including Arctic Indigenous peoples.
Other Arctic nations – like Norway – are still approving new oil and gas projects, even as Arctic Indigenous communities continue to fight for the right to sovereignty. Some of these projects have been approved in traditional Indigenous lands, which poses significant threats to livelihoods and cultural practices. For Alaskan Native communities, managing Arctic resources is vital to sustaining their rights to food sovereignty, cultural heritage, and self-governance, all of which are central to the health of Indigenous lands and bodies. When these rights are denied – whether through legislation, commerce, or climate change – the colonial violence against Indigenous peoples is perpetuated as environmental injustice.
The Willow Project is a reminder of the struggle between economic development and environmental conservation in the Arctic. Despite the devastating impact of climate change on local Indigenous communities, the approval of the project with minimal input from these groups highlights the need to prioritize their complex and diverse voices in decisions that affect their land and lives.
Ultimately, incorporating Indigenous viewpoints into planning and decision-making processes can promote more equitable and sustainable Arctic governance. The Inuit would benefit from strengthening their economy and energy security in ways that do not accelerate Arctic warming. This would require the U.S. to invest in the development of infrastructure in Alaska while cultivating a willingness to engage Indigenous peoples in maintaining regional biodiversity, so that their ecological knowledge and cultural know-how could be included in the formulation of regional solutions.
Box, J. et al. 2019. Key indicators of Arctic climate change: 1971–2017. Read 9.5.2023 at:
Brower, H. Jr. & Edwardsen, A. 2022. My Native Alaskan Community Needs the Willow Oil Project. Opinion. WSJ. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/my-native-alaskan-community-needs-the-willow-oil-project-inupiat-gas-subsistence-municipal-goverment-economy-11664220998
Chiappinelli, J. 2023. Earthjustice Reacts to Biden Administration’s Approval of Willow Project in Alaska, Earthjustice, March 13th. Available at: https://earthjustice.org/press/2023/earthjustice-reacts-to-biden-administrations-approval-of-willow-project-in-alaska
Farah, N. H. 2023. Environmental and Indigenous Groups Sue over Willow Oil-Drilling Project, Scientific American, March 15th. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/environmental-and-indigenous-groups-sue-over-willow-oil-drilling-project/
Kuukpik Corporation. 2022. Kuukpik Corporation Comments on the BLM’s Second Draft Supplemental EIS for the Willow MDP and ANILCA Section 810 Analysis. Available at: https://www.silainuat.org/protect-teshekpuk
Kuukpik Corporation. 2023. Mission Statement & Values. Available at: https://www.kuukpik.com/corporation/mission-statement-values/
Native Village of Nuiqsut (NVN) & City of Nuiqsut. 2023. NVN and City of Nuiqsut Comments regarding BLM Willow MDP Preliminary Final FSEIS. Available at: https://www.silainuat.org/protect-teshekpuk
Simonelli, I. 2020. The Art of Arctic Negotiations. Finding Balance and identifying ‘who’s at the table’ is critical to development. Alaska Business. 37(7). Available at: https://digital.akbizmag.com/issue/july-2020jp/the-art-of-arctic-negotiation/?utm_source=hootsuite&utm_medium=facebook&utm_content=feature&utm_campaign=july2020
Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA). 2023. Willow Master Development Plan and the Climate Crisis. Grasping straws in a dying industry. Read 9.5.2023 at: https://www.silainuat.org/protect-teshekpuk
Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA). 2023. 38 Indigenous Led Organizations Sign On To Stop Willow Plan. Published 31.1.2023. Read 9.5.2023 at: https://www.silainuat.org/news/38-indigenous-led-organizations-sign-on-to-stop-willow-plan
Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, Environment America, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club, & The Wilderness Society. 2023. Complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. pp 63. Read 9.5.2023 at: https://subscriber.politicopro.com/eenews/f/eenews/?id=00000186-e1d3-d3d0-a3e6-f7d78a3c0000
Toivanen, R. and Fabritius, N. 2020. Arctic Youth transcending notions of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’: emancipative discourses of place for cultural sustainability. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 43:58–64. Read 9.5.2023 at:
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