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Prudhoe Bay

Indigenous communities in Alaska are just like those in the lower 48!

…only not at all.

Seriously, there are some significant differences in the way these communities are defined, along with their relationship to the rest of us. I got an interesting glimpse into the differences one day about a decade back when I and a colleague were asked if we could find a local elder willing to meet by teleconference with a college class from a tribal college in the lower 48. We put the meeting together and it went really well.

But one moment from that meeting has always stayed with me.

One of the students from the outside college asked how the elder and others in the Inupiat community here on the North Slope of Alaska deal with oil companies. The elder said something to the effect that you needed strong leadership that could articulate the needs of his own community to those companies. His terms were pretty general, but the student seemed quite satisfied with his answer.

The thing is; I am pretty sure the student was asking out the local community protests with oil companies. I’m also, pretty sure, the elder was thinking about how the local community negotiates a deal with them. To be sure, that negotiation process too could involve active opposition, but for the elder in question, that kind of opposition was by no means a forgone conclusion. He was at least as concerned about a share of the profits as anything else. I do think opposition was for the student; it was the only thing he could imagine an indigenous community would want from an oil company. I don’t think either of them realized they were not really talking about the same things.

I hadn’t been here that long and so I wasn’t sure about this impression, and I really didn’t think these guys needed a white guy appointing himself as a translater anyway.

So I hesitated.

…and the moment quickly passed.

Over time, though, I’ve become even more convinced that my initial impression was correct. Of course, we can find differences between different indigenous communities in other areas, and even between different leaders in those communities. That’s not entirely new, but at least at that moment, I am pretty sure that the prior assumptions of the students in this class and those of the elder were sufficiently obvious to each that they didn’t feel the need to clarify their intentions.

But I really don’t think they were on the same page.