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Incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Geoscience Education
CMOP is working in collaboration with Oregon Health & Science University, Portland State University, Hydaburg School District, and the Hydaburg Cooperative Association to implement a place-based Geoscience education program in the Alaska Native (Haida) community of Hydaburg, located in Southeast Alaska. This program seeks to incorporate traditional ecological and cultural knowledge and the Haida language with geoscience education addressing the needs of K-12 students, teachers, and the community. Hydaburg is poised to nurture a new generation of scientists and natural resource managers who can guide the community to a sustainable future.

For Alaska’s Capital City Weekly

Joe, Sonia and Minnie at the Biscuit Lagoon beach collecting data to understand sea otter impacts on shellfish populations.

Joe, Sonia and Minnie at the Biscuit Lagoon beach collecting data to understand sea otter impacts on shellfish populations.

When you think of the word “scientist,” what images come to mind?

Does your mental picture look like this: a white male wearing goggles and a lab coat sporting a head of crazy disheveled hair? Well, you aren’t alone. When Wendy Smythe enters a classroom in Hydaburg, she opens with that same question.

“We get those same terms every time and then I say, ‘Well, look at me, I’m a scientist.'”

Smythe looks nothing like Einstein. She is green-eyed, blond-haired and Haida. She sings, dances and harvests berries. She also spends countless hours in the lab and in the field studying microorganisms as a post-doctorate fellow at Michigan State. Although she lives more than 2,300 miles from Prince of Wales Island, she still considers Hydaburg her home.

Smythe is a scientist, and so are Joseph Hilaire, Taylor Natkong and Chavonne Guthrie -the three students from Hydaburg who accompanied Smythe and her team of mentors to the 2015 American Indian Science and Engineering Conference last month in Phoenix, Arizona. The mission of the conference is to “increase the representation of American Indians and Alaskan Natives in engineering, sciences and other related technology disciplines.”

I spoke with Smythe, Hilaire and former student Melanie Kadake to understand the conference’s significance for Hydaburg. As it turns out, the conference is only one part of an extensive outreach program Smythe began in 2008 to break down the walls of Western science, to make science meaningful for her home community, and to inspire a new generation of empowered leaders.

Since its inception, the Hydaburg Geoscience Education Program has celebrated many successes. To start, let’s dive into last week’s conference.

The American Indian Science and Engineering Conference

The AISES conference brings together American Indian and Alaskan Native high school and college students from across the country to focus on educational, professional and workforce development in science, technology, engineering and math. Nearly 2,000 participants collaborate over three days while listening to speakers, presenting scientific research and meeting with college and industry recruiters.

The conference specifically caters to the challenges American Indian and Alaskan Natives often face.

“When I first put this program in Hydaburg together, I tried to incorporate every challenge that I had when I left,” Smythe said.”So when you leave a small community and you know everybody and you go to college in Portland or somewhere else, it’s overwhelming and it’s terrifying. So I support AISES because it gives students a chance to leave and go to a conference that’s maybe three or four times the population of where they live. They get to see what it’s like. Then, they go home and they get to think about it – with the hope being that when they do go off to college, they are prepared to handle it.”

Kadake is one of Smythe’s first mentees. She was a sophomore when Smythe first invited her out to collect scientific samples. Seven years later, Kadake is a scientist herself. As an environmental planner for the tribe, Hydaburg Cooperative Association, she spends her summers monitoring important salmon subsistence streams for her community. As a part of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Kadake’s expertise and insight are valued by other tribes and organizations across the region who share her vision for resilient communities and a resilient region. Kadake keeps Hydaburg’s science program running day to day and has participated in six AISES conferences. One of the most important take-homes for her is the feeling of solidarity.

“I appreciate seeing all the different Natives there pursuing their careers in sciences engineering and math, just knowing how many people there are and knowing that I’m not alone in wanting to pursue the dream I have, that’s important,” she said.

Hilaire is a high school senior who presented last week in his second AISES conference. For him, the conference is about confidence. For four hours, students stand by their research posters and present them to a seemingly endless rotation of interested strangers.JoePresents (1 of 1)

“Before I had presented my research project last year, I had no experience in public speaking at all,” Hilaire said. “As more and more people stopped by my poster, I got used to it and I wasn’t as shy as I was before. And so this year, I wasn’t as shy as I was even last year and I had a lot more people stop by my poster and most of them were intrigued in it. I built up confidence in myself and was able to now show some real leadership.”

While developing their research projects, students are exposed to hands-on scientific techniques and are encouraged to cater their work to community priorities. Hilaire compared butter clam predation by otters and humans across four beaches around Hydaburg. Chavonne Guthrie presented on the integration of traditional ecological knowledge in assessing the health of the surrounding watersheds. Taylor Natkong helped monitor the health of Hydaburg’s marina using shipworms as indicators.

Preparing Students Starts at Home

Over the years, the Hydaburg Geoscience Education Program has brought 20 Hydaburg students to the AISES conference. Smythe, however, is a firm believer that truly empowering the next generation of scientific leaders requires more than a yearly conference, it requires the continual support of an entire community.

Garnering support for an idea in a small tribal village isn’t simple or easy. You have to earn it, Smythe said.

“We started in 2008, and in the first year we didn’t go into the school, we just worked with elders and the tribe,” she said. “We took a baseline to see what they thought about the education system in Hydaburg, about us coming there, about us teaching science and how they wanted us to teach it. How could we apply culture and in what ways?”

The program evolved to include the school system. Kadake remembers Smythe’s first field trips as being pivotal in shaping her future.

“When Wendy came, she’d bring us outside and teach us different methods, teach us about macro-invertebrates and how they can show how healthy our streams are,” Kadake said. “Just learning outside the box instead of learning inside the classroom is what brought me closer to wanting to learn more about science.”

The program aims to not only bring science to Hydaburg but to make science more relevant and meaningful for Hydaburg. To do this, the team constantly redefines what it means to do science.

“Our elders, the stories they tell us, our traditional science- that’s grounded in science. Traditional knowledge and storytelling are a way of telling a scientific story,” Smythe said. “They’re just different ways to go about it — different observations and different measurements that we use, that our elders have used, to gauge the environment and be able to tell what’s happening. They use fireweed to tell when winter is coming, when the top of the fireweed is white, winter is coming in a few weeks- that’s science!”

The program has helped support the recording of oral histories from community elders for three years. Those recordings stand as an invaluable resource for not only students, but the community as a whole.

In this way and in others, Haida culture influences the program’s scientific methods and the group’s scientific methods also grow Haida culture.

“About four years into it, we started tying language into the program to not only to teach our language but to actually grow our language,” Smythe said. “There is no Haida word for ‘bacteria’ or ‘computer’ or ‘calculator’. So, we came up with a glossary and worked with Ben Young who worked with our elders, Claude Morrison and my auntie Alma Cook and granny Annie Peele, and it took a long time because they had to discuss, ‘Well what is a computer? How would we describe it in our language?’ We started to grow our language and that was so exciting for the whole community.”

Perhaps the most significant element of the program for building community support is that the science often leads to tangible positive change.

“We use biology to assess the health of the community across all the student’s projects,” Smythe said. “In the marine environment we looked at shipworms, they are related to clams and are sensitive to pollution. We did a study in the marina and we found that in the top column of water, that the shipworms weren’t colonizing. This told us that something was wrong, something was going on and that information was given to the tribe and they used that to write a grant and then got the funds to clean up the marina.”

Using that grant, the tribe was able to pull an impressive 4,000 pounds of debris off the sea floor in 2014.

“After the cleanup, the kids put more traps out and we pulled them this summer and there is colonization along this entire column of water!” she said. “We haven’t released that information yet, we haven’t really told anybody but, it’s really exciting though.”

Measuring Success: To Walk in Two Worlds

The road to empowering the next generation of community leaders and scientists is certainly not without obstacles. Among the many challenges are the high turnover of teachers in Hydaburg’s school system and the lack of support for Native students at some American colleges, Smythe said.

“I warn students to be careful when selecting a college, to remember that you aren’t just a number,” Smythe said. “When you are a number in a program just to increase diversity, your needs aren’t being met and they don’t care. Find a school that respects you and your culture.”

WendyandMelaie (1 of 1) Wendy Smythe are bringing meaningful science to their home community of Hydaburg by science with culture. The two stand in front of the carving shed awaiting for the totem pole to be brought out during this year’s Culture Camp.

Regardless of the obstacles, the Geoscience Education Program has celebrated many notable successes. The community has mentored students from high school to careers in science, broken down the barriers that divide science and culture and has helped to grow a language. Along the way, Hydaburg has catered scientific inquiry to monitor, improve and protect the health of the local environment on which this community depends. All of this was achieved in just seven years, with the program continuing to grow.

“Years ago, we didn’t have this expectation for kids to participate in the program; it’s always voluntary,” Smythe said. “When we first went in, we had two or three people on the field trips but now, this summer we just had all 50 kids. Now, it’s expected from parents for their kids to participate. And the next few years are going to be exciting as we work to expand this program and we have already begun to build new partnerships with the University of Utah, Ocean Genome Lab in Boston, and Michigan State University.”

Community support for a new generation of leaders is also growing.

“The other key challenge we have tried to address in this program is this feeling that when you leave and then come back, you are considered different, right? So, we have been able to overcome that by constantly tying the community in,” Smythe said. “Now, there is support from the community for our students who decide to go away to school. And, that’s been beautiful to see. Naturally, there is that feeling of loss from the family, and we constantly stress that we aren’t trying to take this kid out of the community. We want them to leave, go to school, and then come back. We want them to be the environmental planners that can talk on both the traditional and scientific side. We want them to be the teachers so that they can teach science from a traditional knowledge perspective because they know it and they live it. We want to have our own kids grow up to be the community protectors and able to not only walk in the tribal community but in the science world when our resources are threatened.”


The Hydaburg Geoscience Education Program has been made possible through the support of the National Science Foundation, the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction at OHSU. The team is especially grateful to the elders for guiding them along this journey, Doreen Witwer and Tony Christianson for their support of the program, and the community of Hydaburg for its supporting of local students.

In a Remote Alaska Rainforest, a Tribe Protects Habitat and Restores Culture

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

On Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, the restoration of rivers goes hand-in-hand with the restoration of cultural traditions.

I’m having lunch with members of the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, a federally recognized indigenous tribe, following a morning of collecting data for stream assessments (covered in detail in yesterday’s blog). Haida community members were trained in ecological monitoring protocol so they could restore streams important for their community’s food and culture.

We sit along the stream eating venison sandwiches and salmon spread, discussing the science. Tony Christianson, the enthusiastic thirty-something mayor of Hydaburg and head of the community’s natural resources program,  waves me over to his car. “I want to show you something,” he says. “You can’t understand what we’re trying to do on the streams without seeing what else is happening in our community.”

Christianson drives me to a building that has become a center of Hydaburg cultural life. As we walk inside, the smell of cedar fills the air as men quietly carve, chip and shape totem poles. “We are the people of the salmon and the people of the cedar,” explains Christianson. “We spent all spring and summer putting up salmon. The rest of the year, we carved.”

Intense logging and other habitat degradation seriously affected the salmon, but the fish still provide for the Haida. The story of totem pole carving is one of even greater loss—and restoration.

“There Was a Great Void”

Totem pole carving was long an important tradition for the Haida, a way of passing on stories of the world and how to behave in it. But in the 1930’s, the U.S. government made totem pole carving and other Haida traditions illegal.

“They believed that to save the man you had to kill the Indian in him,” says Terrance “Hagoo” Peele, Tony’s father and today an active carver. “They believed that tradition is the enemy. They ended our traditions and made us Safeway Indians. There was a great void.”

The prohibition on totem pole carving was lifted in 1962; by that time, though, the traditional knowledge behind it had been largely lost. Hydaburg’s totem park—a collection of poles in the center of town–  had not had a new totem pole since 1938.

Another community of Prince of Wales Island, Klawock, had a similar story. But 22 years ago, a teacher named Jonathan Rowan decided to enlist his students in restoring the totem pole carving tradition. Hydaburg community members suggested I visit Rowan’s shop to see what was happening there.

It’s abuzz with activity: students and others hurry around, moving logs, carving them, painting them. At the center is Rowan, a thick-armed former Marine who calls out orders as he carves.

“Look at this,” he says, pointing around. “This place is hopping right now. We have poles being carved. We have poles being painted. It’s awesome.”

When Rowan was young, the Tlingit people in his community were carving on a smaller scale – items like halibut hooks, masks, and paddles – but totem pole carving had mostly disappeared. The village hired a Tlingit carver from outside when it wanted to carve the first new pole in recent memory. That was now more than two decades ago.

“I’m not a touchy feely guy, but when I wake up at four in the morning, I’m thinking of making something,” he says. “I need to be creating something. From the time I was a kid, I wanted to do this.”

The Klawock totem pole carving tradition was revived when the city, the school, the U.S. Forest Service, the Sealaska Corporation and the Klawock Heenya Corporation all worked together on creating totem poles for the community’s totem park. “For me, it’s important that this is passed down,” says Rowan. “The carving tradition was almost lost. We can’t lose it again. We put our kids to work doing this, so they have ownership in our traditions.”

I meet one of those students in a quiet shed, where she sits alone, painting the totem poles. Sydney Isaacs, a cheery college student attending the Institute for American Indian Arts in New Mexico, has been painting all the totem poles that have been carved this summer.

“This is a real privilege, a very high place to be,” she says. “I grew up knowing the important stuff of our community, stories about our ancestors and our traditions. And now I’m playing such a role in it.”

“We are Haida”

Back in Hydaburg, Tony Christianson says he had long noticed and even envied the work Rowan was doing in Klawock. Eight years ago, Christianson’s brother was killed in a logging accident. In his grief, he turned to carving a totem pole.

“That was the first pole raised in Hydaburg since 1938,” he says.

Christianson frequently mentions forces of nature: streams and oceans and deer and salmon. Strolling through Hydaburg, it’s apparent that he is actually a force of nature himself. Kids run up to him, calling him “uncle.” Community members stop to talk about plans for the stream assessment and salmon fishing.

He has been part of the Hydaburg tribe’s initiative to create a week-long culture camp, a celebration of Haida traditions including totem carving, canoe making, potlatches and wild food harvesting. And totem carving is flourishing.

Christianson sees the scientific stream assessment and restoration of traditions like totem pole carving as two parts of the same effort. “The environment is constantly changing. The community is always changing. We recognize that,” he says. “We need science to show us how to restore our streams. But we also need our traditional knowledge to restore our pride.”

Before we leave the carving shed, Hagoo shares several traditional songs, songs of loss and love and history. As he sings a song remembering his ancestors, tears stream down his face as the memories of loved ones come back. He sings another song to send their memories back. As he tells me the meanings of each of these songs, his eyes fill with tears again—this time with pride.

Tony Christianson demonstrates carving techniques. “We need science to show us how to restore our streams. But we also need our traditional knowledge to restore our pride,” he says. Photo: Erika Nortemann/TNC

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
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