Oil and the Iñupiaq: Linking Industry and Education at Iļisaġvik College

Volume 28, No. 4 - Summer 2017
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Ilisagvik College is Alaska’s only tribal college, as well as the state’s only independent community college. Located on the North Slope, the oil and gas industry has been a constant neighbor over the college’s past 22 years of operation—a neighbor and a partner.

Iļisaġvik College’s tikisaksraq, or vision, is as follows: Ikayuutauluta Nunaaqqiñun Suannaktaaglugit IIisagnikunlu Suragallasiñikunlu—to help build strong communities through education and training. Our sivuniq, or mission, is to provide quality post-secondary academic, vocational, and technical education in a learning environment that perpetuates and strengthens Iñupiaq culture, language, values, and traditions. We are dedicated to serving our students and developing a well-educated and trained workforce that meets the human resource needs of North Slope employers and the State of Alaska.

With the above vision and mission as our mandate, partnering with the oil and gas industry in our great state has been a perfect pairing. Before we discuss the partnership, it is important to briefly look back at the history of how it came to be.


The “discovery” of the oil fields on the North Slope occurred in the mid-1900s. The Iñupiaq of the North Slope knew there was oil on their lands for centuries. Oil seeps were not uncommon to find as the Iñupiaq people, living their nomadic lifestyle, traveled around their region. However, once the people settled in the communities that we know today, the lure of what the Arctic had to offer—and the lucrative “black gold” located on the North Slope—was too great an opportunity to pass up for the State of Alaska. This “discovery” of the oil, and the state’s intent to drill on the North Slope, was one of the main factors in the push for a land claim settlement brought forth by Alaska Natives in the mid- 1960s. The result of the settlement was the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1971.

With the passage of ANCSA, Alaska Native people were given almost $1 billion and 44 million acres of land to divide between 12 regional corporations around the state. The corporations were set along cultural lines. Some Alaska Native groups declined the settlement—a few groups in northeastern Alaska, as well as the residents of Annette Island—which led to the creation of the only reservation in Alaska: Metlakatla. The other regions and regional corporations were designed to become corporate, money-making entities. Some critics argue that the design of the ANCSA settlement was rooted in assimilation policy, with the goal of creating a profit-monger culture, which contrasts with Alaska Natives’ original form of business and trade.

For the Iñupiaq who live the farthest north in Alaska, the North Slope Borough serves as the home rule government, created in part because of the oil “discovery” in the region. Oil exploitation also served as the basis for the creation of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of the 12 Alaska Native regional corporations in the state. Both entities are highly dependent upon the oil that is extracted from the region every day.



Ilisagvik offered 270 workforce development classes in a single year, including the 40-hour HAZWOPER training program, which give students the necessary skills to handle hazardous materials.

On the North Slope, one of the largest employers is the oil industry. In keeping with Iļisaġvik College’s mission to develop a well-educated and trained workforce, a large part of our programming is designed to support industry jobs. Therefore the college has forged important partnerships with the industry, which communicates its needs, enabling the college to facilitate trainings to address those needs.

Within its vocational education department, Iļisaġvik College not only offers programs in carpentry, electrical, and plumbing, but also training directly relatable to the oil fields such as welding, scaffold building, heavy equipment operations, and commercial driver’s licenses. These programs offer national certifications to students. Those who decide to work in an industry job are ready for the challenge, and with the certification recognized nationally, students can go anywhere in the United States.

Iļisaġvik College offered 270 workforce development classes in the 2015–2016 school year alone, serving 15 communities across Alaska. Many of these courses, like those offered in the Vocational Education Department, are directly in response to the needs of industry on the North Slope. Classes include the 40-hour HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response), which is designed to train students on how to handle hazardous materials; or those that lead to the North Slope Training Consortium Unescorted Certificate, which is a required certification for all who work in the oil fields. These are courses offered throughout the year. The college’s workforce development program had almost 1,900 students enrolled through the year, with a 100% completion rate. Students receive training, finish successfully, and are immediately employable.

The relationship that Iļisaġvik College has with its industry partners helps the institution in many ways. Specific corporations provide financial support to the college—BP, Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Caelus Energy Alaska are our primary industry contributors. ConocoPhillips is the frontrunner, contributing over $1 million to the institution since they began giving. In addition, our local corporation, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, has also given the college more than $1 million over the past decade.

The contributions that Iļisaġvik College receives from the oil and gas industry are used to support a myriad of programs, including student success and retention activities, and direct funding for courses—both academic and vocational. Funds enable the college to run 13 various summer camps for middle and high school students, support efforts to recruit students in Barrow and seven other communities on the North Slope, and support much-needed general operating dollars.

Taking this partnership one step further, it is not just the contributions that make our relationship successful, or the direct communication and response to what the industry needs in regards to a trained workforce. The relationship between Iļisaġvik College and “big oil” includes statewide support. These partnerships illustrate just how important it is to support local control and self-sustainable communities throughout rural Alaska— and they enable Iļisaġvik College to be responsive to the human resource needs throughout the state, and in particular to the oil and gas industry, which is so prevalent and important in Alaska and the nation.



Oil field operations in the Arctic require a litany of skills. Here, students in a cold-water safety course learn how to use fire extinguishers on land and in the water.

As we consider the future, what do partnerships such as these mean for both Iļisaġvik and the region? Especially today, a time when climate change is debated within our state and the nation, we on the North Slope have to consider the future of our Iñupiaq culture and what it may look like when we talk about our communities and “big oil.”

For those living in the Arctic, there are not many who would be able to say that the climate in the region is not changing to some extent. On the North Slope, we see this change every day—from the amount of snow that we are getting to what time of year we are getting it. Whaling crews must be much more diligent in watching the ice conditions in the spring for the annual spring whaling hunt, as the ice is not as stable as it once was. At the same time, they find themselves having to travel farther off the coast for the fall whaling hunt because the whales are passing farther away from shore. Caribou migration patterns are changing too, and different types of fish are being caught in nets during the summerfishing season. These changes are seen every day and are all related to the climate—a changing climate.

What is the connection between climate change and industry, both of which are right in our backyard on the North Slope? Who is responsible for the changes we see? Can anyone be blamed? What can one do to stop it? Is trying to stop it the right course of action, or is there some other way to address these changes? All of these questions are valid. This is our reality and we must continue to adapt, as Indigenous people have done since time immemorial, so that we can continue to perpetuate our Iñupiaq culture.



As part of its vocational training program, associate professor Dave Elber teaches Moses Barr how to thread piping used in the oil fields.

So, what does this mean for Iļisaġvik College and “big oil?” It means that we continue to be responsive to the training needs of our local workforce, which includes the many companies that do business on the North Slope, right here at home. It means that we continue to partner and, as we’ve been taught by our elders, we incorporate our traditional knowledge and our Iñupiaq values into all of the programs at Iļisaġvik College. If we continue to be good stewards of our students, they in turn will be good stewards of our lands—just like our elders have taught us. If we continue to live and teach like this then we do our part to address our mission at Iļisaġvik College of providing quality, postsecondary education in a learning environment that perpetuates our Iñupiaq culture, language, values, and traditions while educating a trained workforce to meet the needs of rural Alaska and beyond.

At Iļisaġvik College we say, “More Education, More Options, More Out of Life.” This motto rings true for so many different aspects of our lives. We want our Alaska Native and American Indian students to continue in their educational journey and to be the leaders of tomorrow, making important decisions that will affect many generations to come. One of those decisions will be how to meld industry, “big oil,” and our precious climate and culture. It’s a big job—but today, Iļisaġvik College and its sister tribal colleges are educating those leaders of tomorrow.

 Pearl Kiyawn Brower, Ph.D. (Iñupiaq), is president of Iļisaġvik College.

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