More Indigenous knowledge needed to navigate ‘new Arctic,’ scientists say

Scattered blueish sea ice in water
Scattered sea ice near Nome, Alaska, March 15, 2019. (David Dodman/KNOM)

One of the National Science Foundation’s flagship initiatives over the past few years has been Navigating the New Arctic. The effort looks at the effects of a warming climate on Arctic communities — but some in the field believe NSF isn’t doing enough to involve Indigenous people who live there.

More than 200 researchers from around the country signed an open letter to the foundation last month, requesting more Indigenous input to the initiative.

Margaret Anamaq Rudolf is a doctoral candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. An Iñupiaq woman originally from Fairbanks, she studies cross-cultural science education. 

“How do we improve working relationships between researchers and Indigenous communities?” Rudolf described.

Rudolf is one of the people who authored the letter to the National Science Foundation. While she welcomes the foundation’s initiative, she said it falls short of its potential by not focusing on people who live in the Arctic.

“NSF is still centering researchers in navigating the new Arctic, instead of centering Indigenous people in what they want and they need,” Rudolf said.

The letter from researchers was formed in solidarity with another letter sent last year from four Native organizations — Kawerak Inc., the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Bering Sea Elders Group and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. 

Their letter outlined several issues that could have been studied and understood more comprehensively if traditional knowledge was included from the beginning, including food security and community infrastructure. The letter also highlighted problems with requests for proposals.

“The forms that you fill out work pretty well if you have a bunch of university degrees and you have some scientific publications and all the standard things that you’d expect of someone with academic training,” Henry Huntington said. 

Huntington is an independent Eagle River-based researcher who’s worked with the initiative, and is one of the main authors of the recent letter.

He said requests for research proposals from the National Science Foundation are geared to traditional academic knowledge. Comparatively, it’s harder to quantify traditional Alaska Native knowledge, Huntington said, which is often much deeper, more relevant to Arctic communities, and can contribute as much, if not more, to research.

“They confirm what we already know, instead of investigating what we want to know,” said Cana Uluak Itchuaqiyaq, one of the more than 200 scientists who signed the letter.

Itchuaqiyaq is studying for her doctorate in technical communication and rhetoric at the University of Utah. An Iñupiaq woman from Kotzebue and Noorvik. In her experience growing up, she said researchers coming into her community would often investigate questions Alaska Native people already knew the answers to. 

“So it’s taken tons of time for academia and the sciences to catch up to us,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “They’re just catching up.” 

Kawerak Social Science Program Director Dr. Julie Raymond-Yakoubian helped write last year’s letter. She said when Arctic researchers are making research proposals, often one of their last steps is to ask for collaboration with tribal organizations, instead of including them from the start. 

“When tribes and tribal organizations and Alaska Native organizations are brought into the process so late in the game, there’s really no way to effectively collaborate on a truly equitable level,” Raymond-Yakoubian said.

NSF Arctic science program director Colleen Strawhacker said a major initial issue with Navigating the New Arctic was that many researchers were eager to compete for grants and proposals. Tribal outreach was a lower priority. 

“Given the feedback from communities, that’s clearly … quite frankly, a disrespectful approach to including Indigenous communities in [Navigating the New Arctic]-type science,” Strawhacker said.

While NSF officials are still working on a formal response to the Arctic researchers’ letter, Strawhacker said she values the feedback. She said building and strengthening tribal relationships is key moving forward with Navigating the New Arctic. 

“I think it’s critical if we want to fund the best science in the Arctic, we need those perspectives,” Strawhacker said. “We need perspectives from multiple scientific disciplines, but we need perspectives from Indigenous elders and the knowledge that they’ve acquired. I think if we don’t do that, we are doing a disservice to the science and understanding the changes in the Arctic.” 

At the beginning of February, NSF announced Navigating the New Arctic community offices would be hosted at three universities, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Pacific University, a tribal college in Anchorage. 

APU president Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, who is Yup’ik, described the office as a “hub for Indigenous engagement.”

Raymond-Yakoubian from Kawerak said she’s hopeful outreach like this, the solidarity between Native groups and researchers both letters illustrate, and a push for more Indigenous researchers will produce better outcomes in Arctic research.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect remarks made by Dr. Julie Raymond-Yakoubian.