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Outside/In Presents The Refuge | Episode 2: Atauchikun

Nick Mott
Robert Thompson, Kaktovik polar bear guide, sitting at the table

The Threshold team visits Kaktovik, Alaska, the only town within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to find out how the conflict over drilling for oil in the refuge feels to the people who live there. But the heart of the issue isn’t just over oil extraction and development, wilderness and wildlife. Whatever side people took, their focus is on their community, sovereignty, and survival.

For the month of August, Outside/In is featuring Refuge, a four-part Peabody award-winning documentary series from Threshold.

This is the second episode in the four-part broadcast miniseries. We recommend starting with part one, "Sibling Rivalry." The text below was originally written for Threshold's website or drawn from original episode transcript.


The concept of atauchikin comes from the Iñupiat, part of the Inuit family of cultures. Inuit territory stretches from eastern Russia and across the northern part of Alaska, to the enormous Canadian Arctic and all the way to Greenland. If drilling moves forward in the refuge, it will be happening on ancestral Iñupiaq lands.

Kathy Itta-Ahgeak says there's a lot of diversity among all the different Inuit communities, but also many common values and traditions. And one of those values she told me about, has been looping in my brain as I've been reporting on drilling in the refuge. It's called atauchikun.

"Atauchikun is together. And everything has to be in harmony and together, be of the same mind, atauchikun. Comes from the word ataut. Ataut is to be underneath. Like a foundation," said Kathy Itta-Ahgeak. When she and host Amy Martin spoke, she was director in the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

No matter where human beings live, we have to try to get along with each other. But here, in one of the harshest environments on the planet, community cohesion isn't just a nice goal – it's a life or death survival skill. In the middle of an Arctic winter, you can't just get angry and leave your community, all by yourself. Or, you can, but you'll probably die.

Iñupiaq people have survived here for thousands of years by figuring out how to keep working together, no matter what: hunting together, sewing together, preserving food together. And Kathy says this ethic of atauchikun is still deeply ingrained in the culture, and reinforced in all kinds of ways – like through one of the signature Iñupiaq games, called the blanket toss. This is where dozens of people hold the edges of a seal skin blanket, and toss a jumper, in the middle, high up into the air. 

"When we're doing the blanket toss, and we're tossing a jumper, somebody elder will tell us, “Atauchikun! Go together!” You know, we have to go together, we have to throw the blanket together. And even in the hunting, we have to work together. So I think that is probably one of the, um, best characteristics that we have, that we could share, is that, you know, the love and respect for one another and working together," said Kathy.

Drilling in the refuge is just one of many hot-button, family-dinner-ruining, polarizing issues in our country right now. But how does this kind of stuff play out in an Iñupiaq context? How are people holding on to these values of togetherness and harmony when they disagree? Because people do disagree about drilling in the refuge – not just people who live in far-away places, but Iñupiaq people. People who live right next to where the drilling might be.

Polar Bears

As climate change decreases sea ice habitat for polar bears, the animals are spending more time on land, near human settlements looking for alternative food supplies. It means there’s been an influx of bears in places like Kaktovik, Alaska—as well as an influx of tourists who frequent the place to see them. 

Credit Nick Mott
A sign welcoming visitors to polar bear central

This means a swathe of new difficulties for conservation and the local community. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outlines some of these challenges, and some potential solutions, in their 2016 Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan. They also have a Q and A that outlines the plan and its findings as well as a list of guidelines and best practices as part of their polar bear viewing website

Climate pressure on polar bears is compounded by oil and gas development in the same habitat where bears den and raise their young, an issue that has come to the forefront in the struggle over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

Polar bear expert Andrew Derocher answers some big-picture questions on what drilling might mean for the bears of ANWR here. He and his colleagues have written extensively on the topic.

The Union of Concerned Scientists have also expressed concern about the polar bears of the refuge, and what the seismic exploration associated with oil development might mean for them long-term.

Credit Nick Mott
A polar bear in Kaktovik

Drilling: Then and Now

We talked a lot in this episode about how oil and gas development actually works, and what it does to the landscapes on which it occurs. For a more visual look at what it’s meant in the past, visit the New York Times’ recentstory on what remains from the brief period in the 1980s when exploration was allowed in the refuge. 

For details on what it might mean this time around, we recommend going to the final environmental impact statement. There you can find, in detail, some of the projected effects of developing the 1002 area, including the nuances of the 2,000 acre limit. Arctic Todayhas also written on the projected realities of acreage limitations in these kinds of projects. 


Caribou touch many lives in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As the Porcupine caribou herd migrates through its range, the animals play a role in ecology, human culture, and subsistence living. Because those they use the 1002 area as their calving ground, they have become one of the key considerations in the unfolding debate over drilling.

From the Archives

The March 2019 subcommittee hearing featuring Alaska’s U.S. House Representative Don Young can be accessed in full here.

Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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