BARROW, Alaska (CNN) -- Edward Itta, a powerful Eskimo leader, looks out at the icy Arctic Ocean stretched out under a fuzzy orange sun that refuses to set this time of year.
"This is our garden," said the former mayor of the North Slope Borough, a county-style government covering an area as big as Wyoming.
whales, seals, walruses and fish the Inupiat Eskimos still need to survive.
But many Inupiats think "their garden" is being threatened by an international oil rush to get at what may be a treasure trove of more than 25 billion barrels of crude.
Itta's lynchpin decision on whether to fight Shell Alaska's efforts to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic was among the most difficult of his 67 years.
Running his hands along the edge of a traditional boat -- much like the Inupiat people have used for thousands of years to hunt whale -- Itta remembers environmental oil disasters such as 1989's Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon.
But he also talks about the critical economic needs of the region's 9,500 people -- 11% of whom live below the poverty line.
"I struggled with myself and prayed a lot," says Itta.
The whole world is watching. Just ask Bob Reiss, an eco-journalist and author of "The Eskimo and the Oil Man."
"If Shell really hits it big this summer, I think things will heat up even more," Reiss told CNN. "It will be an undersea gold rush for oil."
Shortly before Itta left office after serving a maximum term, he reached a compromise with Shell that opened the door for drilling to begin later this year.
Other officials have struggled with competing fears and desires linked to the promise of oil riches.
What's interesting about Itta's shift toward his final decision is how far he traveled.
In his own words, Itta moved from "hell no" to "OK."
"Not only no ... but HELL no!" Itta emphasizes. "Even one time I said, 'I'm going to fight this, and they will have to do it over my dead body.' "
In this age of polarized politics and unwavering ideology, you have to wonder what was that internal journey was like.
Itta is no stranger to the oil industry. He spent some time working as a roustabout in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest oil field.
But Itta viewed Shell's plan at first as "another threat to our way of life up here."
"We are the Arctic, because we are the land, we are the ocean we are one and the same," says Itta. "That's how we look at our environment -- how our culture has managed to get to this day and age, through thousands of years in one of the harshest environments."