Kristen Green filming the processing of a lynx in Alaska.
Students Share Subsistence Practices Through Film
The film emerged from a research project on indigenous subsistence practices and their potential role in Arctic resource management.
If you want to understand how climate change is affecting subsistence hunters and harvesters in indigenous communities, you might start by visiting Kotzebue, a tiny city of about 3500 people on the western coast of Alaska. This is how two students from Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) found themselves 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle off and on for nearly a year.
More than 70% of the population of Kotzebue and its surrounding villages is made up of Native (Iñupiaq) Alaskans for whom subsistence practices are economically, nutritionally, and culturally vital. Through an agreement with the National Park Service, many local harvesters operate within the boundaries of the area’s four national parklands. Traditional rules for and approaches to harvesting have long helped to maintain the sustainability of these practices, but a changing climate and the confluence of indigenous and Western cultures are creating new barriers to access and threatening resource availability.
In 2017 Kristen Green, PhD ’21, and Savannah Fletcher, MS-JD ’18, secured one of E-IPER’s coveted collaboration grants to document indigenous approaches to harvesting in the heavily used Cape Krusenstern National Monument and to develop policies for the effective incorporation of local knowledge into National Park Service management. By helping to expand agency understanding of indigenous perspectives, they hoped to foster communication, trust, and regulatory compliance, benefiting the community and creating a stronger foundation for the conservation of natural resources.
Among the products of their research is a 13-minute educational film (below) highlighting Iñupiaq values and their potential role in managing subsistence resources in the Western Arctic National Parklands.
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E-IPER collaboration grants are designed to produce innovative outcomes by bringing together the deep scientific expertise of the program’s PhD students with the tactical perspectives of its Joint Master’s students, most of whom are concurrently earning their JD or MBA at Stanford.
Fletcher entered the Joint MS program during her second year of law school to prepare for a career at the intersection of environmental and indigenous law. Green began the PhD program the same year, with a plan to study how communities that are highly dependent on subsistence resources will adapt and maintain resiliency in the face of climate change. It wasn’t long before their common interests brought them together, with a collaboration grant providing focus and funding.
Along with Anne Beaudreau, an associate professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, with whom they partnered to produce the film, Green and Fletcher made several trips to Kotzebue and nearby villages, interviewing nearly 50 local harvesters and National Park Service staff. When they visited in the summer, they found the communities occupied with subsistence harvesting activities, including processing bearded seal carcasses for oil and meat and laying out racks of chum salmon to dry in the sun.
“That was an incredible experience,” remembers Green. "People invited us into their homes, sharing their stories, sharing their food, lending us their summer parkas when we were out in the field.”
Back at Stanford, faculty advisors connected the students to others who had published on ethics related to subsistence hunting and fishing in the Hawaiian Islands.
“This gave us an academic context for our work and highlighted the similarities between the Alaskan experience and that of other communities around the globe,” says Green.
The traditional values that emerged from their interviews rested primarily on the concepts of respect, gratitude, and sharing—specifying, for example, that all people should respect the animals and plants, the land, and other people; give thanks for their harvest; and share their harvest with others. The guidelines are sometimes very specific, such as letting the first caribou of the migration cross the Noatak (the area's major river) before hunting so as not to disturb the leaders of the migration as they lay down a trail for the other animals to follow.
Some of the cultural norms they documented already have parallels in state and federal management. For example, the idea of taking only what you need is reflected in hunting season regulations. Other traditions, however, such as sharing of harvest or releasing an animal's spirit are not currently represented in agency management.
But the students hope their film will help to change that.
“It’s essential that local people have a seat at the table for decision making and that their knowledge is a foundation for how subsistence resources are managed for future generations,” says Fletcher, who graduated in June 2018 and is serving as a judicial law clerk for Justice Susan M. Carney of the Supreme Court of Alaska.
The National Park Service is already using the film as Green and Fletcher hoped it would: as a tool for educating new and existing staff. What has surprised them, however, is the extent to which the community has used the film to expose its youngest members to the values of their ancestors—values that many feel are in danger of being overshadowed or lost.
“Even though there were important values in the community around resource use, they weren’t always being recognized or universally practiced,” says Green, who is spending the 2018-19 academic year conducting more intensive fieldwork in Alaska. “So the film has turned out to be a great tool for youth education, too.”