There are plenty of things Charitie Ropati likes about New York City — $2.75 subway fare, easily accessible Puerto Rican food, and the community she’s found in other young, Native activists. But despite everything the city has to offer, she’s itching to get back home to Anchorage.
“I still want to continue doing research, but I am going to return home, because there’s no place like Alaska, there’s no place like Anchorage. And I’m really thankful for that community,” she said.
Ropati is a 21-year-old senior at Columbia University, studying civil engineering and anthropology.
When she was a kid, she said, she didn’t think she was good at math or science. When she entered middle school, her mother placed her in ANSEP, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she began to see herself in the scientific community.
“I remember a permafrost engineer teaching us about how we grew up in our traditional values, how even those ideas are rooted in science,” she said.
Today, Ropati’s university research focuses on how the ecology of Alaska is impacted by climate change. One of her projects looks at the increasing abundance of fireweed, a hardy, summer wildflower known to grow back quickly after a disturbance in the soil, such as wildfire.
She’s studying how climate warming can also cause changes in soil chemistry that allow fireweed to grow further north.
“And obviously, that’s happening in the Arctic. For Native people, fireweed growth is an indicator of change, an indicator of changes coming, when a new season is coming,” she said. “My research kind of validates that pre-existing knowledge.”
Ropati, who is Yup’ik and Samoan, is intent on building a career as a scientist and climate advocate improving life for Alaskans, and importantly, centering Indigenous knowledge in her work. She’s one of this year’s Arctic Youth Ambassadors and an Arctic Resilient Communities Youth Fellow.
“Indigenous knowledge is science. The way we care for each other is science,” she said. “A lot of people when they think of science, it’s empirical, it’s solely numbers, it’s solely quantitative.”
Yup’ik cultures value community and collective wellbeing in a way that Western society doesn’t, said Ropati.
“I really want people to think about what this industry and what this field would look like if people actually cared for each other,” she said.
Ropati grew up in Anchorage, but has roots in Kongiganak, a village of 500 people located at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. As a kid, she spent summers in the village, learning to clean, cut and dry salmon from her grandmother.
Today, a crash in chum and chinook salmon along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers is hitting Kongiganak and other villages hard.
“Native people, our people, our communities who’ve been living here for thousands of years, our freezers are empty, and that shouldn’t be the reality,” she said. “It’s scary to think about.”
Climate change is likely a big factor in the salmon crash. The massive Bering Sea pollock trawl industry may also share some of the blame.
Ropati said it’s difficult to watch Western Alaska communities suffer as a result of problems they didn’t create. For her, it’s another reason to encourage more Indigenous representation in the scientific community to prioritize subsistence rights and climate resilience in rural Alaska.
“Indigenous land management … works,” Ropati said. “We have healthier forests, we have healthier rivers, we have an abundance of fish and wildlife and healthy biodiversity when we manage our own lands. And so research can be used in that way, to give autonomy back to Native people.”
Soon, when she graduates, Ropati is hoping she and others coming up behind her will be able to further those goals themselves.