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Project Kickoff in the Last Great Frontier (Team Alaska)

By: Matt Luizza


Two weeks ago marked only the second time I have flown over Alaska’s Yukon Flats. During this brief flight, I was again awe-struck by its beauty and grandeur. Skirting above this 11,000 square mile lake complex, comprised of some 40,000 small enclosed water bodies and streams, a diversity of wildlife, and thousands of rural indigenous community members, I was reminded of how truly vast this landscape is. With my face pressed against the window of our jostling plane, I recalled the Aleut word Alyeska (a likely source for our 49th state’s name) translates to “great land”. However, the source might have come from another Aleut word, agunalaksh, which means “the shores where the sea breaks its back.” Although far from the coast, floating over an undulating tapestry of emerald green and sunburst yellow wetlands and fire scared forests, crashing into the jettison of intermixed blues, grays and browns of the turbid main river stems, each meaning seem equally fitting, and the juxtaposition of beauty and unforgiving power was not lost on me.

We were headed to conduct our youth intern training at Venetie Village for our team fellowship project “Indigenous Life-ways in a Changing World”. This project aims to collect baseline data on community needs, concerns, and perceptions about environmental changes witnessed, critical local resources, and threats to indigenous livelihoods for the recently established T’ee Drin Jik (Chandalar River) Tribal Conservation District (TCD), which includes the tribal lands of both Gwich’in Athabascan communities Venetie and Arctic Village. With a combined population of around 330 people both villages are part of a small number of Native Alaskan communities that own their land. This affords a greater level of management control and the TCD is actively seeking broad community feedback. Three members of our team (including local community youth and practitioners from Alaska Wilderness League and Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council) will spearhead this data collection.

Our training was extremely productive and a lot of fun. Spending a day and a half at the village provided a great opportunity to learn more about the TCD from its director Lance Whitwell, conduct the data collection training, which included reviewing protocol for conducting semi-structured interviews and practicing the application of free lists, as well as an important opportunity to update the pool of interview questions. We were also able to meet with a number of community members and begin hearing their stories and concerns. Afterwards, our full team went out on the Chandalar River to check salmon nets and set up water sampling equipment for an ongoing monitoring project administered by the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council (YRITWC). 

Community interviews for our project will kick off in early September and our team will be reconvening in Alaska in October to begin data analysis. Additionally, our community youth intern Lance Whitwell II will be attending a youth leadership training in Anchorage Alaska leading up to the kick off of the data collection (congrats Lance!) Stay tuned for more project updates from our other team members!