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The head of a caribou sits outside a youth center in Nuiqsut, Alaska, in 2019.

For decades, Sam Kunaknana has caught grayling and hunted caribou along Fish Creek, a small river that meanders over the open Alaskan tundra near the Iñupiaq community of Nuiqsut. Kunaknana sets nets for broad whitefish, jigs for grayling, and waits for the caribou, which he remembers ambling in large herds across the muskeg years ago. Roughly three-quarters of the residents of Nuiqsut, which sits in the center of Alaska’s North Slope some 20 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, mostly eat foods harvested from the wild. 

But in recent years, living off the land has gotten harder for Kunaknana, who’s 55 years old. Nuiqsut has slowly been encircled by oil wells and pipelines. “I could see development coming, as a kid, from the east,” Kunaknana said. Then the drill rigs crept north along Nuiqsut’s horizon. And now they are moving west. 

Sam Kunaknana points out oil development as he steers his skiff down the Colville River near Nuiqsut in July 2019. Grist / Max Graham

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