Skip to main content


4-IGERT Alaska Workshop


Enormous environmental changes are occurring hand-in-hand with social change in the Arctic. To better understand these changes, and to learn more about ethical research that incorporates the perspectives of indigenous peoples experiencing them firsthand, four IGERT programs working in this topical area met together for a 3-day, NSF-funded workshop in Juneau, Alaska, to discuss Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and interdisciplinary polar research.

Workshop attendees from Dartmouth College, the University of Alaska (Juneau and Fairbanks), the University of Kansas, and Kansas partner Haskell Indian Nations University, all have IGERT programs applying interdisciplinary research on climate change with a focus on high latitude systems. IGERT trainees, faculty, and program coordinators, as well as select Native American undergraduates interested in the science and social science aspects of rapid environmental and social change occurring in the Arctic, met March 22-24, 2011, for three days of plenary sessions, speakers, panels, and break-out sessions.

Each of the four IGERTs was responsible for two presentations: 1) an overview of its IGERT program and 2) discussion of a specific topical area. Program presentations included student and faculty talks, PowerPoint presentations, and videos. Topical presentations included “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Interdisciplinary Research,” “Frontiers of Arctic Research: Socio-Environmental Systems in Greenland and Alaska,” Partnering with Rural Communities in the North,” and “Managing an Open Arctic: Creative Interdisciplinary Approaches.” Many of the topical discussions were augmented by breakout sessions in which smaller groups could work on a specific challenge related to the overall theme.

A hallmark of the breakout groups was their highly interdisciplinary nature. Graduate students, undergraduates, faculty and invited speakers, Native and non-Native all contributed to the content. Many attendees expressed their excitement about sharing information across disciplines and cultures.

Invited speakers included Dr. Dan Wildcat from Haskell Indian Nations University, who described the problem of disciplines working in silos as “The Universe has problems. Universities have departments.” The opening address was given by Barbara Blake, a University of Alaska Fairbanks student. Other speakers included Dr. George Charles from University of Alaska Anchorage, and a panel of local Alaskan leaders, including Jimmy Stotts (Alaska Inuit Circumpolar Council President), Edward Thomas (President of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council), Vernor Wilson II (World Wildlife Fund), and Alannah Hurley (Nunamta Aulukestai).

Another workshop high point was a field trip to the Mendenhall Glacier (called Aak’wtaaksit “the Glacier Behind the Little Lake” by the Tlingits), 12 miles from Juneau, which provided an opportunity to see environmental change in action. After walking across a frozen Mendenhall Lake, attendees were up close and personal with the terminus of the glacier and the Juneau Icefield. However, the glacier has receded considerably over the past 50 years.

The workshop concluded with a discussion of career development and graduate school, and the hope that future research projects will come from the experience in Juneau. Collaborations among the four IGERT programs started long before the workshop, facilitated by several video conference and a workshop website:

Attendees hope for several tangible outcomes from the workshop: a public response and action plan for the National Ocean Policy, a letter of support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People addressing the integration of western science and traditional knowledges, and organization of an interdisciplinary polar research and TEK session at the next SACNAS conference.

Many at the workshop came away with a new understanding and appreciation of a term coined by Dan Wildcat – “Indigenuity.” For all attendees, it captured the unique knowledge indigenous peoples contribute to the discussion of climate change.

Address Goals

Primary: This workshop contributed to NSF strategic goals by providing an intensive cross-cultural challenge to IGERT Trainees by asking them to consider ways that traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and western science might be integrated to create a new transformative science that allows understanding of how coupled climate and human social systems function. The integration of TEK and western science is a fundamental methodological and ethical challenge for the environmental and social sciences.

Secondary: This workshop brought together a diverse group of Trainees from the sciences, engineering, and a breadth of social sciences to focus on Arctic change. Many of the participants and guest speakers were Native American. The resulting dialogue strengthened Trainee confidence and skills in cross-cultural communication and the communication of their research across disciplines. This type of experience is formative in building an inclusive science workforce with the skills to communicate science to all citizens.