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
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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.''
Applications Open for First Nations' Arts Initiative
First Q&A Webinar is July 31, 2018
Applications Open for First Nations' Native Arts Initiative
First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has launched a new Supporting Native Arts grant opportunity under its Native Arts Initiative (formerly known as the “Native Arts Capacity Building Initiative” or NACBI). Applications are due by August 30, 2018.
The Request for Proposals for the Supporting Native Arts grant opportunity can be accessed at http://www.firstnations.org/grantmaking/2018NAI. First Nations invites interested applicants to join one or all of our Application Q&A webinars, which will be held prior to the application deadline as follows:
- July 31, 2018, 11 a.m. Mountain Time (expect 1 – 1.25 hours), Registration URL: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/178138868014073859
- August 15, 2018, 1 p.m. Mountain Time (expect 1 – 1.25 hours), Registration URL: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/6824848286129370883
- August 23, 2018, 11 a.m. Mountain Time (expect 1 – 1.25 hours), Registration URL: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/8435348047309628931
First Nations will award about 15 Supporting Native Arts grants of up to $32,000 each to Native-controlled nonprofit organizations and tribal government programs that have existing programs in place that support Native artists and the field of traditional Native arts, as well as a demonstrated commitment to increasing the intergenerational transfer of knowledge of traditional Native artistic practices and perpetuation and proliferation of traditional Native arts. Eligible applicants must also be located in and serve tribal communities in one of the following regions:
- Upper Midwest (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin);
- Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California); or
- Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington).
For this grant opportunity, examples of allowable activities that support arts programming include:
- Master/apprentice artist opportunities
- Archiving and collections/ preservation efforts
- Promoting artist-focused convenings
- Artist business plan and entrepreneurship training
- Communal artist spaces for Native artists
- Artist-in-residence opportunities
- Artist-led workshops and arts classes
- Artist financial literacy and business development training
- Strengthening Native-led juried art show and market capacity and artists’ capacity to enter art work
- Artists cooperative development
Examples of allowable activities that support organizational infrastructure growth include:
- Governance training for organization’s Board of Directors
- Organizational strategic planning
- Strengthening technological and informational systems
- Financial management
- Organizational and/or programmatic marketing and communications plan
- Strengthening project management systems
Entities eligible to apply include U.S.-based, Native-controlled, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations, tribes and tribal departments, tribal § 7871 entities, or Native community-based groups with eligible fiscal sponsors committed to supporting Native artists as well as the perpetuation and proliferation of Native arts, cultures and traditions as integral to Native community life. Applicants located in urban areas are eligible if they are located in one of the geographic regions listed and are able to demonstrate a close tie to one or more tribal communities in one of the eligible geographic regions. Grants will not be made to individual artists or for-profit organizations.
Proposals for the Native Arts Initiative grant opportunity will be accepted online and must be submitted by no later than 5 p.m. Mountain Time on Thursday, August 30, 2018.
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)