Alaska Cultural Connections: Impressions of the City

Nuiqsut is both one of the newest communities on the North Slope and one of the oldest. The area was inhabited for centuries by the Iñupiat, and then abandoned for Barrow. In 1973 former community members decided to resettle the area and build a village far from the bustle of the regional hub. But just twenty-five years later, the bustle came to them in the form of Alpine Oil field. For our rural/urban series, contributor Anne Hillman found out how the community –and communication — adapted to being in the cross section of two worlds.

Elder Lydia Sovolik grew up in the Colville Delta, home to the modern day community of Nuiqsut.

“I always had my dog team. Had fun with my dog team (laugh) hunting squirrel, hunting ptarmagin,” Sovolik said.

Her family was one of the last to leave the area in 1948 for Barrow, a larger town with schools. When they lived in Barrow she worked as a waitress in different restaurants. But eventually, it became too much.

“Eeeh, too much alcohol. That’s how come we want to move back here. Too much. Can’t stay dry over there,” Sovolik said.

So they joined a group that wanted to re-establish a settled community in the Delta. She arrived in Nuiqsut on the back of a snow machine in 1973 and moved into a tent with her children and the rest of the new settlers.

“Lot of people always make a lot of donuts. You could smell ‘em from outside…. And we’d always get a plane. Lot a times the plane would land in the street. Or by the bank,” Sovolik said.

Now, Nuiqsut boasts perfectly straight streets lined with wooden houses, a school, a store, churches, an airport… And oil. Elder Joe Nukapigak says his ancestors knew about the oil in the region.

“They would come to the certain places where there’s an oil seep and in those years they would dig up the oil soaked tundra and use it to heat their sod houses and whatever,” Nukapigak said.

But Nukapigak says that’s not why people returned to the area. They came for the hunting and the fishing – the same things their ancestors sought in the region.

Within 25 years of the founding of Nuiqsut, the subsistence-based community had to start thinking about oil development. James Taalak is the cultural coordinator for the city of Nuiqsut. He says when oil companies first came to the area, they didn’t bother to communicate with the local residents.

“15 to 20 years ago they wouldn’t have even given a community like Nuiqsut a thought. They’d do their regular thing. They’d go to state agencies to get their permits, they’d go to the larger business and the regional corporations to get their okays, but come to a small community and do a meeting? Back then, they wouldn’t have given it a thought. But these days, it’s mandatory,” Taalak said.

Taalak, sitting in the bustling but tiny city office, says that when the oil companies began reaching out to the community, they were in for a shock.

“I think it’s a culture shock to a lot of the outsiders. You know? They’re used to set times, given times, appointments, and making sure they’re either early or on time for these appointments and deadlines. Come to a community like Nuiqust or any where in rural Alaska, villages, they say you know, maybe you’re right, I should take it easy, soak it the days,” Taalak said.

He says they also had to learn about different mannerisms – eye contact is less important in Inupiat culture; people raise their eyebrows to say yes. And the Inupiat had to learn about the Outsiders.

“We have a lot of people here who may not comprehend the English language and ways and antics. The gestures.  Cause all that could mean something to the Inupiat. Something specific.” “Like what?” “You know, when you speak, how you roll your eyes or move your eyebrows. Facial expressions. Body language,” Taalak said.

But over time, and through cross cultural education by the city, both sides came up to speed.

“But I think on all sides, at least for Nuiqsut I can speak for, I think that bridge has been crossed. We can communicate as well with them as they can with us,” Taalak said.

And he says he thinks the companies are listening more to the community’s concerns and being more respectful.

To help maintain the bridge between the community and the oil companies, some businesses, such as Pioneer Natural Resources, attend the annual Naluqatak festivals each summer. Pioneer provides a barbeque at the event that celebrates the yearly whale harvest. Dale Hoff, a senior land manager with Pioneer, says they also require all of the workers to attend orientation sessions about the local culture, whaling, and sensitive parts of the Arctic environment.

“It’s important to our company because really the people of Nuiqsut are our closest neighbors. We’re about 25 miles away from their village, which seems far for other people but in the Arctic it’s pretty close. And we’d like to maintain the respect for the community here as well as help them understand what we do. We’ve had people come out to the island. We have a good working relationship with the village,” Hoff said.

As Lydia Sovolok sat waiting for her whale and for her hamburger at Nalukataq, she reflected on life when she first returned to the area.

“People always go caribou hunt, share the food, give some to people when they get caribou meat. We help each other,” Sovolok said.

She says the caribou hunting has changed – the herd has to travel different routes to avoid the pipelines – but the sharing at Naluqatak continues.