As the Arctic thaws, Indigenous Alaskans demand a voice in climate change research
Climate scientist Darcy Peter is Gwich’in Athabascan and hails from the Yukon River village of Beaver, Alaska, population 25. There, she says, “The concept of a grocery store is overwhelming.” She laments that climate change threatens the village’s subsistence economy. “The Yukon’s channels are changing like crazy” as its banks erode, and a major source of sustenance—king salmon—is dwindling.
But Peter, who studies greenhouse gases and permafrost thaw at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, is just as dismayed that to many colleagues studying Arctic warming, its impact on Indigenous Alaskans is often “out of sight, out of mind”—despite a recently launched U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative meant to change that.
The Navigating the New Arctic (NNA) initiative handed out its first round of grants totaling $ 37.5 million in October 2019, doubling the amount NSF spends on Arctic research. It aims to improve understanding of Arctic change, but also encourages scientists to enlist Indigenous communities in the “coproduction of knowledge” by involving them in planning and executing projects.
“I’m glad NSF went in that direction,” says Kaare Erickson, North Slope science liaison for Ukpeag˙vik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) in Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow. But NNA’s execution, he says, has been flawed. NSF and researchers “expected everyone to drop their guard and begin working together. They didn’t foresee the backlash they’d get.”
Many NNA projects ignore Indigenous Alaskans or include them as an afterthought, a coalition asserted in a letter sent to NSF this spring. “We continue to lack meaningful access and voice in the vast landscape that is the ‘research process,’” wrote Kawerak, Inc., a consortium of 20 tribes in the Bering Strait region, and three other organizations representing dozens of Indigenous communities.
NSF is urging outside scientists to take such concerns to heart—for starters, by grasping the concept of knowledge coproduction. “We made a mistake in assuming that scientists knew what that meant,” says anthropologist Colleen Strawhacker, program officer for NSF’s Arctic System Science Program. “We definitely have a lot of work to do to make sure that Arctic sciences is diversified and equitable.” In an open letter on 3 August, NSF’s Arctic Sciences Section, which funds a separate research slate from NNA, called for proposals “that will enrich interactions and improve collaboration between Arctic residents,” including Indigenous-led projects.
Few question the need to better understand the impacts of climate change in Alaska. Spawning salmon are dying from heat stress, reducing catches. As winter sea ice grows sparser, Indigenous hunters must often travel farther over open water, at their peril, to reach walruses and seals hauling out. Diminished ice also means higher waves and storm surges that pummel shoreline villages. “Some parts of Alaska have the highest erosion rates on Earth,” says Thomas Douglas, a geochemist with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory near Fairbanks. The assault forced Newtok, a Yupik village near the Bering Sea, to relocate last fall and is threatening others.
This spring, Douglas came across another warning sign: a young moose that died after stumbling into a sinkhole that formed as permafrost thawed. Permafrost loss renders the ground suddenly permeable, “like unplugging the plug in your bathtub. We hear reports of fishing holes and freshwater sources draining overnight,” says Merritt Turetsky, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at University of Colorado, Boulder.
As these challenges have unfolded, Indigenous Alaskans have sought to be part of the solution. “For many decades,” the coalition wrote to NSF, “we have asked to be active partners with agencies and academics that wish to come onto our lands and waters to conduct research.”
That plea is often ignored, says Lauren Divine, director of the Ecosystem Conservation Office for the Aleut Community of St. Paul, a volcanic island in the Bering Sea. St. Paul is a microcosm of the upheaval the region is enduring, with heavy coastal erosion and mass die-offs of puffins and other seabirds. Scientists studying these woes sometimes seem to view Indigenous participation as an exercise in ticking a box, says Divine, who is a marine biologist by training. “We ended up just getting cold-called. Solicitations to hop onto a proposal without any thought for what funding would be directed to the tribe.”
In their letter to NSF, Indigenous leaders recommended NNA focus on projects that address the sustainability of Arctic communities—food security and infrastructure, in particular—and set aside 25% of NNA funds for Indigenous-led projects. “We would love to see more proposals coming in on those topics,” Strawhacker says. But an agency spokesperson says NSF has no plans to reserve funding for Indigenous- led projects.
Another irritant for Bering Sea communities like Divine’s is NSF’s focus on Alaska’s North Slope, facing the Arctic Ocean. The March letter notes that “the majority of communities with the greatest threat to infrastructure from permafrost degradation lie outside this area.”
For NSF-funded scientists, a big draw on the North Slope is a research center and environmental observatory near Utqiagvik that UIC runs on an NSF contract. Still, “I don’t think lack of research infrastructure is the main impediment” keeping outside researchers from connecting with Indigenous Alaskans, says anthropologist Julie Raymond-Yakoubian, social science program director for Kawerak. It’s more that scientists have not historically made bridge-building a priority, she says.
There are success stories. One early example Raymond-Yakoubian points to is a Kawerak workshop in 2014 on ocean currents that brought oceanographers together with Indigenous hunters and fishers. “At the end, a lightbulb went on for everybody,” she says. The oceanographers had a handle on deep off-shore currents, while the Indigenous Alaskans had an intimate knowledge of near-shore currents: how animals navigate them, for instance, and where eddies form, trapping choice driftwood for boatmaking. “There’s a body of knowledge you develop as a community that cannot be replicated by Western science,” Raymond-Yakoubian says.
Pacific walruses also led to a meeting of the minds. For thousands of years, many Indigenous Alaskan communities have hunted walruses for food. But as ice in the Bering and Chukchi seas began to diminish 2 decades ago, biologists worried about the future of the animals, and in 2009, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the species as threatened or endangered. At the same, the retreat of the ice was making it harder and more dangerous for subsistence hunters to reach walruses, and in 2013, two St. Lawrence Island Yupik communities declared harvest disasters, says Vera Metcalf, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission.
To gauge the population’s health, USFWS and the commission set up workshops to tap Indigenous insights on issues such as where walruses calve. “The best walrus expertise exists out there in the hunting communities,” says USFWS marine mammal expert Joel Garlich-Miller, who is based in Alaska. USFWS determined the walrus population appears to be relatively large and healthy, and in 2017 declined to list the species.
The cooperation continues. “Things are much better now,” says Metcalf, who is Yupik. It’s one case where “Our Indigenous voice is being heard.”
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