Alaska Native graduate program aims to elevate Indigenous knowledge in fisheries research

A smiling girl next to a river holding a fish.
Elizabeth Mik’ Lindley is one of the students in UAF’s Tamamta program, which brings together Indigenous and Western sciences to transform graduate education and research in fisheries and marine sciences. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Mik’ Lindley)

A program focused on bridging the gap between Indigenous knowledge and Western science is entering its second year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

It’s called Tamamta, a Yup’ik and Sugpiaq word that means “all of us” or “we”, and it’s part of UAF’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

Fisheries professor Courtney Carothers is the faculty member in charge. She says the nine Indigenous graduate students starting their fellowships this year are from all over Alaska, but they’re united by a common goal.

Listen here:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Courtney Carothers: The clear message coming out of a lot of different projects was that there’s this sense that the kind of persistent deep inequities that Alaska Native people are facing in fisheries, education, research, governance systems is pronounced.

There’s this real lack of Indigenous people, Indigenous values, Indigenous knowledge systems included in how we teach and research and govern fisheries in Alaska. And we feel like that’s a real gap and problem. And so we can sort of do our fisheries and marine work in a different way, really trying to elevate Indigenous knowledge systems that are in Alaska — 14,000-plus years deep, to really be used alongside Western science in these systems.

Casey Grove: There really is a lot of knowledge there. What does it mean to include Indigenous knowledge and science? What does that look like?

CC: We really try to advocate against including Indigenous knowledge in Western science and more moving to recognize that Western science is its own knowledge system — it’s a knowledge system, kind of with European worldview and values, norms, assumptions. And recognizing that Indigenous knowledge systems are diverse, but equally valid and they’re based on different worldviews and values and norms and assumptions. So they’re distinct. And so we really try to elevate and recognize Indigenous knowledge systems as their own intact knowledge systems. They don’t need to be validated with Western science. I think sometimes in Western education and resource governance and management, Western science is thought of as the only system or that it’s universal — that everyone shares the same worldview and ways of thinking. And, of course, in Alaska, that’s not true. And we think it’s for the betterment of all to use multiple ways of knowing in our research and in our education and in our governance systems.

CG: If we were talking about a research paper or a project, what specifically, if there was an example, would be different?

CC: So I think some of the really core features in many Indigenous knowledge systems are core values around respect and reciprocity, relationships and even really fundamental assumptions. You know, in the case of fisheries, in the Western worldview, fish are a resource, right? They’re a natural resource. We think about them to make money or maybe for food. 

But in the Indigenous worldview, fish are non-human kin. They’re a relation. They’re a being with as much agency, with as much intentionality as people. And so they deserve respect in the same way that people do. 

And so, if research was done from an Indigenous knowledge system with regard to fish it would be really different by design than a Western project that might think about counting fish, extrapolating the returns of fish. In an Indigenous context, the whole nature of what we’re studying, how we study it, why we’re studying it, might look really different. And so it’s hard to bring those two knowledge systems based on really different understandings of the world together, but it’s being done in really unique and interesting ways.

CG: The students are all graduate students, but they’re from all different parts of the state. I wonder, could you tell me about two or three of them?

CC: Yeah, most of the fellows in our cohort are first-year graduate students this year, like you said, from all over the state. 

Tazia Wagner, is Ts’msyen, Lingít, Haida and Athabascan student based in Metlakatla. And so she just graduated with her BA in fisheries from UAF in the spring. She works at the Department of Fish and Wildlife for the Metlakatla Indian Community and they run the largest tribal fishery in the nation. And seeing her work evolve, you know, she’s really wanting to get trained in Western fishery science, but also recognizing such a depth of knowledge from her elders and her family and community in Metlakatla and the way they are able to manage their tribal fishery and trying to really study some of the the ways in which the Western management at the state level and the federal level has negatively impacted Alaska Native communities. So the limited-entry program is one topic that she’ll be exploring and how that program which, again, has Western assumptions built into it, that fishing is individual, that the right to it should be commodified, that you should purchase a permit to have access — these are values that don’t align well in Alaska Native communities. And so she’s studying the impact of that program on her community and the fishermen from her village and throughout Southeast Alaska. 

And then we have a few students who are further along in their studies. Elizabeth Mik’aq Lindley is a Yup’ik student who was born and raised along the Kuskokwim River in Bethel. She’s starting her second year of her master’s in fisheries. And, you know, hearing her speak about her deep cultural ties to salmon and Yup’ik ways of knowing and being really brought her to be studying salmon and fisheries and having these reflections, you know, that Western fishery science in her undergraduate degree didn’t necessarily have much recognition for Yup’ik ways of understanding, Indigenous ways of understanding fishery systems. And so in her master’s work, she’s studying salmon in the Arctic and trying to bridge some of the Western, more recent observations of salmon and environmental change with longer-term, Indigenous understandings of salmon and other species and long-term environmental shifts in the Arctic. 

So, that’s just a couple. There’s nine fellows, all with amazing biographies on our website. I really hope folks check out the fellows page. They’re just already doing amazing work. And I’m sure they’ll be doing much more as they progress through their careers and education.

CG: Does it feel like this is a very long-term project, that you’re sort of slowly trying to turn the ship in a way? 

CC: I think that is a good analogy. And that’s been our sense that this is kind of long-term work. But I will say, having this first cohort start, nine Indigenous students pursuing their master’s and PhDs in fisheries, marine sciences, Indigenous studies feels like a big shift. And it’s shocking in 2021 that that’s the case in Alaska. But it is. And to have this powerful cohort of Indigenous students, again, already doing amazing work, they’re leaders in their communities, they’re leaders in our classes, and looking forward to having their credentials and degrees and to really be doing this kind of work in a different way, in an Indigenous way, it’s really transformative. And it brings a lot of hope, and deep love and hope for the future for those of us that have been trying to work on some of these issues for a long time. And many of us before. You know, this work is also standing on the shoulders of many others who’ve been trying to promote similar changes for decades and longer.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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