Alaska Cultural Connections: Cross Cultural Communication

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.

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In 1973 former community members decided to resettle the area and build a village far from the bustle of the regional hub. But just 25 years later, the bustle came to them in the form of Alpine Oil field.

For our series on culture in Alaska, contributor Anne Hillman found out how the oil company and the community have learned to communicate with one another.

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 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. They made it as comfortable as they could.

“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.

“The 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, in the 1990s, 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.

“Fifteen 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.

Alpine oil field sits eight miles from the community of Nuiqsut. It was the first major development near the community and ConocoPhillips first started commercially producing oil *there* in 2001. They run three other sites in the Colville Delta. Other companies, like Pioneer Natural Resources, operate fields in the vicinity.*

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 surprise.

“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 anywhere in rural Alaska, villages, they say you know, maybe you’re right, I should take it easy, soak in 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 and their fast ways and sometimes confusing body language.

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.

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 and dance with the community during the festival’s closing.

Pioneer, which operates a small oil field from a man-made island two and half miles off-shore, 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.

And James Talaak, who helps coordinate some of the cross-cultural meetings, agrees that the companies are much more respectful than they used to be.

But that doesn’t mean that the entire community is completely happy with oil development in the area. Multiple elders said that the pipeline changes where the caribou herd travels. The animals don’t come as close to the community any more, making hunting harder. And the hunting grounds of their ancestors were the reason many of them came back.