November 29, 12:46 p.m.: Framed below a seal skin umiak whaling boat, the sun edged itself above the southern horizon and lingered for just two hours and 24 minutes. On December 7, the sun will stay below the horizon and remain there for 28 days.
In 1958, under the direction of Edward Teller, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) devised a plan to detonate a series of nuclear devices 160 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. These bombs were to be exploded just 30 miles southwest of the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska. Teller’s plan – if an action so dangerous and misguided can even be called such – was to blast out a harbor in this far north coastline. The United States government didn’t bother to tell the local residents of this scheme. Nor did they take into consideration that the land in question dId not belong to the United States government; it was and still is sovereign Inupiat territory.
Whale bones mark a sod igloo buried in snow in the ghost town of Old Tikigaq, which was abandoned in the mid 1970’s. Although the sun is only in the sky briefly in November, it is a glorious time of year. This is the November light we have been waiting for.
A caribou hunting party stumbled across AEC engineers and para-military personnel encamped at the mouth of Ogoturuk Creek, near Cape Thompson. That’s when the questions and the lies began.
Grass silhouetted against the southern sky just before dawn, the frozen sea stretching to the horizon near Point Hope, Alaska.
In the end, Teller’s heartless plan was stopped. The bombs were never detonated. The experiment to determine how much radiation local flora, fauna and humans could survive was never carried out.
This is a story of heroes. There was Howard Rock, the co-founder of the Tundra Times, a highly educated, literate Inupiat leader who wrote the first, insistent letters to the United States government demanding that this plan be immediately halted. There were the white scientists from the University of Fairbanks, Pruitt and Viereck, who raised their voices against the project, and in standing up for the Inupiat people and standing against the government were fired by University President, William Wood, who played a less noble role in this story. There were the millions of citizens in the United States and all over the world who were in the streets, protesting nuclear tests of this kind. And there are the people of Point Hope who stood up to the government then and who are still fighting to force the United States government to tell the whole story of Project Chariot.
Because this story is not over.
Over time, as erosion steadily ate away the finger of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea, the old town had to be abandoned. This fall, the entire area was inundated with water when high winds and hurricane force gusts pushed sea water over the rock sea wall protecting the north side of the point.
Although Teller lost his bid to detonate the world’s most destructive arms, in what feels like a tit-for-tat payback, under his direction, in secret, another group of engineers and military personnel were dispatched to the Project Chariot site. This time, they spread radioactive waste on the ground and in the stream. And they buried something there. Something in large, sealed drums.
To this day, the United States government has refused to divulge what was buried.
Since that time, the incidence of cancer has been higher than the national norm among the people of Point Hope. Higher than it should be, even taking into consideration other factors. These are some of the best people we’ve ever had the honor to be associated with. Kind, generous, resourceful, resilient, tough. Their government owes them answers.
Tell-tale tracks leave evidence that an Arctic fox was patrolling Old Tikigaq just before we hiked out. These whale bone jaws located near the airstrip a mile and a half from town welcome visitors to Point Hope. The area around Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Americas – maybe the oldest. While many Inupiat (Eskimo) cultures were nomadic, here the animals came to the people. The point of Point Hope formerly extended far to the west out into the Chukchi sea, bringing the land in close proximity to migratory paths of seals, whales, walruses, char, salmon and other fish. Two impressive capes, Thompson to the south, Lisburne to the north, are home to tens of thousands of sea birds. To the east, Point Hope is situated near the migratory route of thousands of caribou. The sea and the land are the garden that has sustained people here for thousands of years.
For more about Project Chariot, see the book The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill. And although it is difficult to obtain a copy, there is an excellent, 73-minute documentary film titled Project Chariot, copyrighted 2013 NSBSD & Naninaaq Productions: UNCIVILIZED FILMS.