Dorothy Frost is crying.
It's the last weekend in May - Big Caribou Days, a homespun festival celebrating the annual spring migration in Old Crow. And Dorothy, a tribal administrator and one of Stephen Frost's numberless relatives, is supposed to be giving a pep talk. She fidgets in the log community hall before a crowd of villagers clad in rubber boots and fleece jackets, outlining the Gwich'in's caribou crusade. But her voice trails off. Normally a jovial woman in glasses, she covers her eyes with her hand and sobs. Later another speaker, an elderly man just returned from lobbying in Washington, also breaks down. So does a young woman who stands in the audience to offer reassurance. It's hard to watch.
"Everybody's emotional right now," says Dorothy Frost, recovering her composure. "Things are coming to a head."
The Gwich'in people have no legacy of armed resistance to European invasion, no mythic or bloodstained Wild West to draw grim inspiration from. There was no Gwitchin Geronimo. No northern Sitting Bull. Like most Canadian Indians, the usually peaceful tribe was incorporated into a tumultuous world the invaders called "New" through commerce, when the Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie first showed up on the Porcupine River in the 1790s, paddling a bark canoe packed with furs and trade beads.
"Nearly all European travellers who have visited the (Gwich'in) refer to their fine physical appearance and pleasant dispositions," wrote an anthropologist studying Old Crow as recently as 1946. "I found them to be self-confident and forthright, kindly, generous, intelligent, and honest."
The great irony of their long battle against the United States is that, win or lose, this very act of defiance has opened the door to change. And now, an alien new bitterness simmers in Old Crow. If Congress approves oil development in ANWR, some tribe members are vowing to meet the bulldozers at the refuge boundary with their hunting rifles.
"I've got news for the Americans," an angry young lobbyist named Shawn Bruce tells the somber community hall crowd. "If it comes down to it, we will become militant over that herd. We got Gwich'in men over in Iraq now. We got Vietnam vets. We will train warriors. We won't let them in the calving grounds. I burn. I am mad."
Stephen Frost, the master hunter, is more philosophical.
"I think what upsets people most isn't that them Americans will drill, but that they'll drill without even knowing we goddamned Indians exist," he sighs. "They'll get the oil for their cars. That'll be it."
Surveys taken since Hurricane Katrina jacked up gasoline prices tend to bear him out. According the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, public support for oil development in ANWR has risen from 42 to 50 percent over the past six months.
Back in Old Crow, Big Caribou Days ends on a down note. Almost nobody joins the late-night jigging contest - a dance competition set to fiddle music inherited from 18th century European trappers. Frost walks home early, complaining about his knees.
A man of habit, he had gone out caribou hunting the day before, one last time for the season.
Ethel was away in Anchorage, undergoing a checkup at the cancer clinic. And the Frost household, long since emptied of its 11 children, had been unbearably silent.
The old man had sat on the banks of his beloved river, feeding willow sticks into a small fire. He never took a shot. Only a few straggling bulls were fording the Porcupine by this late date; the cows were already up north, leading the migration to their embattled Alaskan calving grounds some 200 miles away.
Frost passed the time calling to the birds. He did this uncannily, mimicking the squeal of field mice in distress. Again and again, Arctic owls in their snowy winter plumage swooped low. And ravens diverted from their high tangents in the sky to investigate.
He smiled. For a little while at least, all his troubles seemed like a dream. And for the first time in weeks, Frost seemed truly happy.
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