Native American science conference draws 2,000 in Anchorage

Alaskans played a key role in the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s conference that drew about 2,000 people to Anchorage Nov. 1 to Nov. 3.

The event included sessions geared toward Native American and Alaska Native students, professionals, educators, and others — many with the theme “Adaptability.” AISES is a national organization based in New Mexico.

Willie Hensley, one of the key leaders in drafting the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, said the conference’s theme was fitting given its location.

Alaska Natives have long relied on adaptation to survive in the north.

“They use the snow to protect them. They use the earth for their homes,” Hensley said at the start of the conference.

Sessions throughout the event talked about ways in which Alaskans have adapted and how to integrate traditional knowledge with scientific practice.

During the opening ceremony, Lockheed Martin’s Olav Kjono said adaptability is also a trait needed in the science and engineering world.

“The ability to adapt is a relevant and necessary trait that scientists and engineers must continue to hone,” Kjono said.

Students from Bristol Bay talked about the ways in which their community has done just that, presenting their research on wood-burning heating systems, solar energy, gardening and local fisheries.

Sarah Evans, a technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a student in Bristol Bay, shared work on local fisheries. Her project looked at how traditional gathering of certain resources was impacted by fishing in the area.

“Subsistence is really important to the Bristol Bay area because we’re a fly-in only area,” Evans said.

Incorporating local knowledge just made sense for her project, but Evans said she’d like to see more of that in research.

Heidi McCann, from the Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic, or ELOKA, talked about how that organization works with local knowledge.

ELOKA is housed at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.

The project works to create systems for preserving local knowledge, while allowing indigenous communities to choose who that information is shared with and how it is presented.

Some of the projects ELOKA has worked with include knowledge about sea ice that can be accessed publically — some elders have even suggested smartphone apps that would allow the younger generation to easily check the information before they go out hunting on the ice, McCann said.

Essentially, the project is using technology to make local knowledge useful for a wider variety of people — within the constraints of the people providing the knowledge.

“As Native people, we’re always having to adapt to Western ways, and this project is the reverse,” McCann said.

The conference wasn’t limited to scientific discussions. It also included a career fair that organizers said is the largest in Indian country each year.

Several dozen businesses and colleges from throughout the country — including many Alaska organizations — offered information about their operations. Some even held interviews onsite.

Bristol Bay Native Corp., or BBNC, was among the exhibitors.

“We have many opportunities within our subsidiaries for engineers, scientists, and doctoral candidates,” said Shareholder Development Manager Catherine Reamey. “This is a great way to meet indigenous bright young people and entice them to work for a family of companies that has deep cultural values.”

BBNC wasn’t the only Alaska company that participated in the career fair. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Sealaksa, and the Aleyska Pipeline Co. were among those present.

So were some Alaska educational outfits, as well as several colleges and universities from Outside.

April Phillip, a lifelong Barrow resident now attending Iḷisaġvik College, said she attended the AISES conference in Minneapolis, Minn. last year. The career fair was one of the best parts.

“So much info about other colleges,” she said.

Phillip will graduate from Iḷisaġvik College this spring, and is applying to nursing schools. She and the other Barrow students planned to attend this year’s fair as well — after their presentation about the Junior Public Health Educator program.

Not every business at the conference was a corporation looking to attract new hires. Common spaces in the Denai’na and Egan centers hosted more than a dozen artisans from Alaska, and around the country, who sold art and other goods.

Theresa Mike was one of many Alaska entrepreneurs.

“People are really interested in how I made it, where I make it from, the skins and furs and my beads, where I get them from, too,” Mike said.

She sold a variety of her handiwork, including beaded items, like earrings and decorated bags, and fur products, like footwear. Mike usually sells her art at holiday bazaars and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. When she heard about the conference at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in October, she decided to participate. Mike spends much of the year in Chugiak, but returns to her hometown, Kotlik, each summer to participate in subsistence activities.

The conference included a slice of Alaska Native traditions beyond just the arts vendors. A local volunteer committee did much of the work to coordinate area efforts, including organizing cultural activities, including dancing and games, on the final evening.

Alaskans also received recognition during a final banquet.

The AISES Professional of the Year award went to Jeff Kinneeveauk, president and CEO at Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Energy Services.

Two other awards went to members originally from Alaska. The technical excellence award was given to Christopher Nordahl, who works for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, and Linda Benson Kusumoto, who works for the U.S. Navy’s Business and Force Support Center Pacific, won the executive excellence honor.

11/11/2016 - 8:07pm