Iñupiaq Activist Siqiniq Maupin on Survival and the Arctic Refuge

The fossil fuel industry has inflicted enormous damage, but her land and culture endure

Adapted from an interview by Wendy Becktold

December 8, 2020


Photo by Troutnut/istock

Siqiniq Maupin is an Iñupiaq activist living in Fairbanks, Alaska, whose people have inhabited the area in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for 12,000 years. The fate of the refuge and those who depend on it hang in the balance as the Trump administration rushes to auction oil leases in the refuge’s coastal plain. As executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, Maupin works to strengthen the Iñupiaq cultural identity and loosen the grip of the oil and gas industry on her homeland. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

I’m Iñupiaq. I was born in Utqiagvik but raised in Fairbanks. My family is from Nuiqsut, on the Arctic slope. I don’t really think of myself as an environmental activist, but I was drawn to this work as I started to learn more and more about how my people in Nuiqsut especially, and also in Utqiagvik, have been directly affected by oil and gas pollution, land issues, and human rights violations. 

The Arctic Refuge is on the other side of the Arctic slope. Oil companies like to compartmentalize these pieces of land, but my aunt lives in Kaktovik. Half my family lives in Utqiagvik, and the other half lives in Wainwright, Anaktuvuk Pass, Nuiqsut, and Atqasuk. People tend to divide these communities, but they are all so connected. If I tried to date anyone in the eight villages of the North Slope, my god, we’d be related.

The more I learned about the Arctic Refuge, the more I learned about myself and my family’s history—a lot of hard history about how oil and gas really came into Alaska. We are always told the story that the Iñupiat embraced oil and gas, that it was a harmonious relationship. But I’ve since found out that there were tons of Iñupiaq leaders that spoke out against offshore drilling, and oil and gas. In Utqiagvik, the community was torn on this issue.  

I was very small when we left Utqiagvik for Fairbanks. Unfortunately, with oil and gas comes a lot of violence, addiction, and alcoholism. A lot of trauma goes along with boom and bust economies. My mom wanted to get me and my brothers away from that, but we were still impacted. Oil and gas brings a lot of hard things into Indigenous communities. It brought a lot of pain into my family. There are repercussions from oil and gas and these types of economies that so many people will never see, that will affect me, my children, and my family for the rest of our lives.  

I have about 30 first cousins on my mom’s side. They and my grandparents would come down every Christmas and we’d rent out a couple of hotel rooms that were connected and make our own little village. I grew up eating caribou, whale, seal. My mom grew up speaking fluent Iñupiaqtun, but that was the boarding school era so she didn’t teach any of us. None of the 30 cousins speak it.

When I got older, I went to work for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. In the Lower 48, when the Indigenous people got their settlement, it was in reservations. In Alaska, we got corporations. Arctic Slope Regional Corporation is one of 12 regional corporations that split the land up for settlement purposes. Arctic Slope Regional Corporation happened to have land on what is now the largest oilfield in North America. 

Working for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation was said to be the pinnacle of success for an Iñupiaq person, especially for someone like me, coming from poverty and addiction. I was an intern in the legal department. I got paid more than a lot of people my age.  

When Shell pulled out of offshore drilling in 2014, we had to lay off entire departments. Everyone was scared for their jobs; we were getting hours cut. I was 20 years old. I had just had my second daughter. I was in college trying to figure it out as a single mom with two little kids. All the employees got a memo from the president saying that because of environmentalists and environmental regulations, our sovereignty rights had once again been taken away from us, that this would affect our food security. 

It didn’t sit well with me that the memo went out to the whole entire company, which is about 10,000 employees. I knew Shell had pulled out because there wasn’t enough oil to be found in offshore drilling; it was going to cost a lot of money to explore. At the time, I was studying art. I printed out the memo from the president and pasted it onto a painting I had done of some sea otters. 

That was really the first time I thought "woah, this isn’t right." The company claims to have Iñupiaq values. Our values are to honor our children, our elders, our nature, and the land around us, but we are dishonoring them by not listening to our elders’ advice—no one in Nuiqsut had wanted drilling. Only when the older generation started to pass away did you suddenly start seeing a lot of contracts and oil infrastructure going up. 

The more connected to the land I am, the more connected I am to who I was always supposed to be.

When my internship ended, I started to get involved with more activities on campus. That was when I was introduced to Native Movement. It was amazing to find an organization that didn’t try to indoctrinate us. The leaders said, “Here is some information. We want to give you your own way of coming to this kind of knowledge.” It was very different from what I had experienced at the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation for four years.  

I believe that as Indigenous people, we feel a certain pull toward our real selves and these traditions that we’ve had for over 12,000 years. I got sober in 2016, and that really woke me up. I felt that the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation was continuously making unethical choices, for example, with their involvement in Pebble Mine. I started to see pamphlets about the Arctic Refuge, about how it was essentially a barren land that had so much potential to make money. The more critical thinking I did, the more I started to realize that this Fortune 500 company was essentially trying to brainwash our community.  

In February 2018, while working with Native Movement, I went up to Nuiqsut to give a youth mentoring training. Alaska Community Action on Toxics was there too, and the organizers were handing out air quality monitoring systems because the only one the community had was owned and operated by ConocoPhillips. At the training for the air quality monitoring systems, we went over a report that talked about the health impacts of toxins and pollutants. It listed things like loss of taste and smell (which is a very big complaint of almost all my aunts), respiratory illnesses and cognitive issues, cancers, and aggression in young men—these were things we were seeing in our community all the time. I started to connect the dots. After a big chemical explosion in 2012, two children in Nuiqsut had developed asthma so bad that they had to be medivaced out several times. Two other children in Nuiqsut had been diagnosed with leukemia. 

I was also realizing that I didn’t really have a direct connection to my people—I didn’t know how to speak our language, how to hunt, how to be on the land. Through my work with Native Movement, I was able to go to Nuisqut in 2018 to hunt caribou. I brought my two children. We were out for about six days. After that, I visited my aunts, who helped me make my first parka—an atigit—a big coat with a lot of fur, a traditional garment, and I started learning how to sew atikluks for my daughters. This summer I went out berry picking for the first time. I live in Alaska, so that sounds weird, but growing up my biggest focus was to numb out from a lot of the pain I was in, to just survive and feed my kids. I didn’t really have time to understand that our culture was more than what I saw right in front of me.  

Iñupiaq activist Siqiniq Maupin. | Photo courtesy of Siqiniq Maupin 

I think a lot more Indigenous kids are going to be finding themselves living in the cities because of climate change, jobs, health. There are just so many reasons to move into more urban areas, and then all we see is what’s right in front of us and what a lot of people who aren’t Indigenous remind us of constantly—that Natives are homeless or drunks or get free stuff. They don’t see the generational trauma, or how beautiful our culture is. I didn’t get to find that out until I got connected to the land. The more connected to the land I am, the more connected I am to who I was always supposed to be. 

I changed my degree to Alaskan Native studies with a concentration in Alaskan Native languages. Now, I study Iñupiaqtun with my children. I picked about 50 gallons of berries this summer using an old traditional harvesting method. I went caribou hunting by myself with my kids. We went out on the land and camped for two days. 

Corporations are inherently going to go against Indigenous values. They are legally required to make the most money for their shareholders. They are not required to have ethical practices in terms of Iñupiaq values—those are sentiments, they’re nice things to say, but they’re not required. And that’s what we see with Arctic Slope Regional Corporation—they’ve invested in projects that go directly against our own best interest. 

Look at offshore drilling. The agvik, our whale, is a central part of life. In Utqiagvik, the coastal communities have nalukataq, a blanket toss to celebrate a successful whale hunt. It happens two times a year. Almost the whole village comes. They help cut up the whale; it gets passed out to everyone. This isn’t a luxury item. It’s essential for our health. 

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation does provide college scholarships, which is a huge benefit and privilege. I was able to go to college for free, and I was able to survive without taking out loans. And the dividends are really the biggest benefit. But our communities are plagued with all the problems that you find in poorer areas. There is a big disparity between poverty and wealth. You can have one household that makes a million dollars a year, quite literally—our top paid executive gets $5 million a year—with $80,000 vehicles in front of the house and all the nicest snow machines. Then right next door, you’ll see 10 kids living in a two-bedroom home without enough food to eat and who have to walk everywhere in the 50-below weather.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation continually says the Arctic Refuge is our backyard, that the Gwich'in who live there have no say in what should happen. But the migration route of the Porcupine caribou goes through every single Gwich’in community. The Gwich'in and the Iñupiat have been divided not just by corporations but even by our own people. Growing up, I often heard Iñupiat say that the Gwich'in are against us, that they were trying to take away our money. 

That said, we’ve made huge strides in realizing that the Gwich'in aren’t against us and that the oil companies have their own best interests at heart, not ours. We have much more in common with the Gwich'in. We’re starting to see that we’re in the same fight. All Indigenous groups are connected by the caribou routes. How can we tell the Gwich'in that they don’t have just as much say when we understand migration routes? 

I like to think about the example of the Peabody Coal Mine and the Navajo and Hopi Nations. The coal company came in and riled them up about land rights and pinned them against each other. Even now, there are different time zones for the Hopi and Navajo reservations. I can relate to this kind of long family feud. When Black Mesa Water Coalition was created, the organizers would go to the Hopi, and the Hopi would say, “Don’t trust the Navajo,” and then they’d go to the Navajo, and the Navajo would say, “Don’t trust the Hopi.” But when they finally came together and were united, they were able to shut down one of the largest coal mines in the nation, and not just that, win $13 million for restoration and investment in a just transition. 

Bernadette Demientieff [executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee] and Jody Potts [Native Movement regional director] are my mentors. Jody is Gwich’in from Eagle, and Bern is Gwich’in from Fort Yukon. In September, the three of us had a meeting with Bank of America executives to ask them not to finance drilling in the Arctic Refuge. It felt a lot like the executives were talking in circles. I said, “Are we wasting our time here? Are you open to this idea? This isn’t for show; this is our lives.” Bank of America just announced it won’t finance drilling in the refuge, and it’s a huge win.

As of about a week ago, I am the full-time executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic. I cofounded the organization in 2019. I believe with all my heart, especially with a Biden administration now, that we aren’t going to be drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are so many layers to why this would be wrong. The first is the climate crisis. The second is that it’s an untouched ecosystem that is highly sensitive, and it needs to be here while our Earth starts to heal. The third layer is human rights. We can clearly see that oil and gas cause direct health impacts and that it is a food security issue.  

Right now my biggest concern is that with the lease sale, exploration and seismic testing will take place. This would be a huge mistake. It would scar the tundra forever. There is no way in our lifetime or even in three lifetimes that we can see the tundra healing from activities like seismic testing. We have to make sure that the refuge is not damaged to the point of no return like we’ve seen in other parts of nuna, the land. I’m really hopeful, and I also know that there is still a big fight ahead of us.