Alaska-Mexico Interchange 2009

Iḷisaġvik establishes International links between Indigenous cultures

What do communities in Mexico and Alaska have in common? Since 2006 students participating in Iḷisaġvik College’s Alaskan/ Mexican Indigenous Interchange summer program have been learning how to answer that question. Studying in three very different regions, they have been exploring how the issues facing Indigenous communities worldwide regarding climate change, resource management, science, history, and culture are very different and yet surprisingly similar.

“This program changed my life,” said 2006 participant Selma Khan of Barrow. “I used to think that we were the only ones who had to struggle for our way of life but now I’m finding out how people all over the world have had to do the same.”

In 2006, North Slope students welcomed their Mexican counterparts in Barrow for a month, working with scientists, talking to elders, and spending a weekend in Atqasuk to go berry picking. They then travelled to Mexico where they stayed with families and learned about community resource management in the Zapotec region of the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca and the Patzcuaro (Purehépecha) region of Michoacán. In 2008 six North Slope students spent the month of August in Mexico, again living with families, working with young local scientists and learning about the ways in which communities make decisions about their resources. This summer, students from these same communities met in Alaska to spend a month working together. Thus in both Alaska and Mexico, students have lived with families and worked with scientists, culture bearers, and political decision makers to understand the many different ways people learn about their environment, the ways in which it is changing, and the crucial role that culture plays in the ways that people interact with the world around them.

This year students had the opportunity to take part in a wide range of research projects that included historical, social, and scientific aspects. Point Hoper Michelle Lane participated in a climatology group that worked with Steve Hastings to study the relationship between melting ice and the Gulf Stream; Katie Roseberry teamed up with Rodolfo Garcia to work with owl specialist Denver Holt; Jerica Aamodt expanded her knowledge of bio complexity by working with Gus Shaver´s graduate students. And Kuoiqsik Curtis used the opportunity to take on historical research to explore the lives of two elders from his home village of Point Lay. The presentation that he gave last year in Ixtlan de Juarez about Iñupiaq values inspired several students to learn more about them during this year´s stay in Barrow. That focus included an enthusiastic evening with Fannie Akpik and Martha Stackhouse who taught students how to prepare ducks and geese for soup and, after a meal of native foods from Barrow, Anaktuvuk Pass and Southeast, also introduced students to Iñupiaq dancing, Barrow style.

Fatima Garcia, a high school senior from Ixtlán said, “What has been most striking to me is the culture and the way the Iñupiat connect to the environment. I’d like to take this back to my community to raise enthusiasm.”

This sense of connection was felt in many ways. Barrow High School Senior Katie Roseberry commented, “We saw how climate change is causing soil erosion in Mexico and we can see how it’s causing beach erosion here.” Roseberry, a returning student to the program this summer, also participated in the Eider Journey, RAHI (UAF-Rural Alaska Honors Institute) Science internships, and Archaeology projects, all sponsored by Iḷisaġvik. “Differences and overlaps in the different programs have helped me review what I’ve learned… everything is working together and becoming more connected,” Roseberry said.

Anibal Martinez from San Juan Nuevo participated in the first interchange in 2006 and waited for three years for the chance to come back to Barrow. Now a second-year college student in Michoacán, he explained “Sustainable architecture is my focus at school. So, learning about climate change and tools to research climate change will increase my skills to design houses in changing conditions.”

The program was conceived as a collaborative effort by Barbara Bodenhorn, a Social Anthropologist at Cambridge University in England and instructor of record for the Alaskan students who have a chance to earn Iḷisaġvik credits in both social and natural sciences through their participation. Having worked on the North Slope for over 30 years, Bodenhorn is pleased to be able to encourage such active interaction. It was facilitated on a local level by Iḷisaġvik Director of Community and Workforce Development, Debby Edwardson as well as by Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC) Executive Director, Glenn Sheehan.

“By placing equal value on both scientific and cultural ways of knowing, we hope to encourage these young people to value their own communities more highly and to consider careers in the sciences. Their participation can help to prepare them to get involved in a number of fields which import hundreds of researchers to the North Slope each year, almost none of them Iñupiat,” suggested Bodenhorn. On a larger scale, Bodenhorn said, the project “establishes international links between young members of Indigenous communities who will soon be having responsibilities for developing and maintaining environmentally sound resource management strategies.”

Edwardson noted that, “One of the side benefits of this program has been that the students act as cultural ambassadors for their regions.” She also thanked the many families in Barrow who opened their homes to the students from Mexico, and many community members from different organizations who took time to impart their knowledge to the students. BUECI and the Rotary Club of Barrow both donated money to the program. Major funding came from the National Science Foundation, supported by an agreement with Iḷisaġvik College, BASC/NSF contractor CH2MHill Polar Services and the North Slope Borough School District. Further support was provided by Cambridge University and CECYTE, the College of Science and Technology in Ixtlán de Juárez, Oaxaca.

For more information, please contact Debby Edwardson at or via phone at (907) 852-1703.