You know Iḷisaġvik College President Pearl Kiyawn Brower, Iñupiat, has her work cut out for her when the first thing you see on the college’s website is a polar bear warning—the animals, which can stand 10 feet tall on their hind legs and weigh 1,000 pounds, have been sighted near the college; caution is advised.
But that’s only one of the challenges of running a two-year tribal college on the North Slope. A desperately-needed new campus is in the works, which Brower hopes will be completed within the next five years. “Our facilities were built in the 1950s as a naval arctic research laboratory. When the Navy departed in the early 70s, this whole complex went to our local village corporation who now rents it to the college, but the buildings were never intended for education,” she said. Iḷisaġvik College offers post-secondary academic, vocational and technical education while perpetuating and strengthening Iñupiat culture, language, values and traditions.
Unlike most other tribal colleges, Iḷisaġvik College has a residential dorm, but it does not accommodate families, so women cannot live on campus with their kids. Brower hopes the new facility will have a whole floor of family housing.
And that’s important because of the crucial role tribal colleges play in Native American women’s lives. “The tribal college is a home. It’s a safe place. It’s a haven. Tribal colleges are what we call catalysts for change because tribal college communities are a place where many indigenous women who cannot leave—many of them have families, many of them are a single family, some of them are trying to work while also going to school—can not only be themselves but also find support and find people who they can connect with, which is very different from Western-centered institutions,” Brower said.
“Tribal Colleges are an incredible space for Native women to really have an amazing opportunity to reach for the stars and reach their goals,” she added.
Certainly Iḷisaġvik College is a home for Brower, who was born in Alaska and raised in Barrow, where her father’s family is from, until she was about 8 years old. “The Brower family is quite large and doing wonderful things around our community,” she said. Then she, her mom and her brother moved to northern California to help her ill grandmother run one of her ranches.
After her mother remarried, Brower had the opportunity to experience farming life. “I had the great experience of growing up in Barrow living a very subsistence lifestyle and then moving to northern California to a smaller community, but also very subsistence oriented.” Living on the farm, she said, was very different from Barrow, where she returned every summer.
She graduated from high school in California and went to a community college there. “I enjoyed the experience and have been able to translate that into some sense of what I do today because Iḷisaġvik College is the only community college independent of the state university system in Alaska,” she said.
Then she returned home and went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks “where it was wonderful and really amazing to be back connected to my culture, my community,” she said. She graduated in 2004 with two bachelor’s degrees in Alaska Native Studies and anthropology and was recruited to come home to work for her village. She was soon asked to come to out to Iḷisaġvik College, where she started in the summer of 2007. She finished her master’s, got married, had a daughter—who is now 5—and in 2012 was appointed president of the college, making her one of the youngest tribal college presidents ever. In 2016, she earned her Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies: Indigenous Leadership Focus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“I love being here connected to my culture, my community and I love being here really pushing forward the importance of education,” she said.
Sixteen of the 37 tribal colleges have women as presidents, and that makes perfect sense to Brower. “The real reason why indigenous women are leading the tribal colleges is that they are some of the most important leaders within their communities,” though it’s certainly not the only reason.
“A big piece of this could be attributed to the nurturing aspect of Native women, and women in general, I suppose. Tribal colleges are not at all like mainstream colleges. They are nurturing places. It’s a wonderful place and a good niche that indigenous women are able to fill.
“I think that’s the difference between a Western institution where students probably don’t even see the president in person and haven’t ever spoken to him. Most likely, they don’t think he knows their names. The difference at tribal colleges is I know the name of almost every single one of my students, I cook for them, I am engaged with them. I think that’s the same for other tribal college presidents… but as we’re looking at women, I think that’s a role they play in the support and nurturing of their students and of their institutions.”
Tribal colleges differ in another important way from mainstream educational institutions. “Most leaders at tribal colleges are from that region or are culturally connected to it, and they’re very place-based. We find that the students coming to tribal colleges most likely are ones that are wanting to advance in their communities and give back to their communities. That really does change the dynamic—you’re not out to compete with somebody else in your class but you’re all working together to figure out how to best use your assets for the betterment of your communities, your families, which is very different from Western institutions,” she explained.
Brower is looking forward to the future at Iḷisaġvik College. “I’m really excited about the next five years. Really important to us is having a new campus. The other thing I envision is this fall we are going to start offering a 4-year degree in business administration. And close on the heels of that will be elementary education with an indigenous perspective, an emphasis on indigenous ways of education. I hope that within the next five years those two programs will be very robust. And the third thing that we’re really working on is an athletic program. We’d like to have a junior college basketball program to really encourage our students to continue their education after high school and to be able to do something they love... and that’s play basketball.”
With such an ambitious agenda, polar bears are apparently not nearly as formidable a challenge for Brower as you might think.