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'Like Ice Floes': Iñupiaq Sovereignty and Settler Migration on Alaska's North Slope



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Walsh, Elizabeth 


My dissertation examines relations between Iñupiat in the village of Utqiaġvik on Alaska’s North Slope and a number of non-Iñupiat transient workers who, enticed by generous salaries, have temporarily relocated there. A focus of my study is the North Slope Borough, founded by Iñupiat to preserve their political autonomy and funded by taxes collected on the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

My research tests and refines theoretical frameworks concerning settler colonialism. I draw on political, economic, and environmental literatures in sociocultural anthropology, as well as Native American and Indigenous studies and interdisciplinary settler colonial studies, to show how Iñupiat and non-Iñupiat village residents engage in day-to-day interactions guided by differing economic motivations and different understandings of community, place, and value. By working in an Indigenous community with both Iñupiat and non-Iñupiat, my research adds contemporary, on-the-ground, ethnographic insight into the ways in which individuals’ perspectives and attitudes are shaped by settler colonial ideologies as they are experienced in the present. I explicitly locate the origins of attitudes and dispositions of both non-Iñupiat transient workers and Iñupiat in the settler colonial past, while also tracing how these norms have endured structurally into the present. Long-term participant observation has allowed me to explore the ways in which socio-political norms are felt in, and inform, everyday life.

In the first two chapters, I contextualize contemporary transient worker passage through the village within a history of colonial comings and goings to the region initiated by European explorers and Yankee whalers pursuing similar economic goals. I locate Native Alaska, the North Slope, and Utqiaġvik within the legal and political frameworks of United States settler colonialism and demonstrate that contemporary relations among non-Iñupiat transient workers and Alaska Natives are grounded in norms and understandings derived from these frameworks.

In the remaining chapters, I describe the findings of my ethnographic research. I detail how many economically motivated transient worker employees at Iḷisaġvik College, a tribal college founded to provide local, culturally informed higher education, socially segregate themselves from the majority-Iñupiat community. I show how their ethical, social, and political commitments to fellow residents and the Arctic landscape are informed by the settler colonial and capitalist ideological structures familiar to them. This puts them at odds with Iñupiat, for whom the ethical and the economic, the individual and the community, are all connected through the Iñupiaq value of sharing and the hunting and community-wide distribution of the bowhead whale.





Herle, Anita


Alaska, environment, labour relations, Native studies, settler colonialism


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge