“To seek knowledge is to seek truth. And truth seekers have always had a rough go of it in this world. Those who see life as something to be solved, put in order and contained are constantly bending truth to their own demands.”
Richard Wagamese, One Native Life (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008).
— Richard Wagamase, One Native Life
In relation to shocking, unexpected and sometimes abrupt change, many designers, artists, academics, and those committed to fieldwork proceed from the assumption that “personal” means being there. Such a claim begins to sound like an excuse to fly around the world in order to experience the climate emergency firsthand. This position reveals more about the culture of the researcher than it does about the subjects of study. Such a culture tends to see climate emergencies as a faraway place, further reinforcing antiquated methods that divide other species from humans, and humans from one another. To be a vulnerable observer of faraway landscapes one must be able to meet climate precarity on personal terms, in order to make sense of it in relation to your own land-based experiences. Radical acts are concealed in the effort to relate to one another because noticeable change is everywhere if you look carefully enough. What studying Alaskan permafrost taught me was that there is integrity in not going to Newtok, in replacing in-situ fieldwork with ex-situ fieldwork that acknowledges our collective vulnerability: we are all at risk.
Despite our common connections, the semantics of climate change mitigation labels the Yup’ik villagers of Newtok an “at-risk” population. And this is precisely where the trouble begins. It does not begin with the steady liquefaction of permafrost. Neither does it begin with the associated collapses and patterns of melt that spread across the state, adding pressure to the geologic features and interspecies networks so unique to the Tundra. It also does not begin to explain how policy ties and binds Americans to leased property. Rather, it originates in the forced displacement of tribes from their land, and it endures in the subsequently enforced settlements that settler society still labels “reservations.”
7What is sustained by calling Yup’ik tribes “at-risk” is a story of indigenous suffering that reiterates hardship, hurt, and disillusionment. According to Indigenous author Richard Wagamese, misery is the only indigenous story that perseveres in contemporary culture, curtailing any healing or future empowerment: “Our stories, as presented in the media, seem to reflect our lives only when we are dead, dying or complaining.”
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.), 185–91.
Richard Wagamese, One Story, One Song (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011).
Yup’ik life is positive, striking, and charged with reality. Not know- ing very much about Yup’ik tradition and culture has made my encoun- ters more symbolic and emotional. My ignorance propelled me to find common associations that always brought me back to a shared respect and care for the land. I am grateful for the magic of the research that was constantly revived every time my expectations were derailed. I am the vulnerable observer. It was almost a decade ago that an interest in land-based knowledge brought Yup’ik traditions into focus. And this is where the vulnerability lies: Primary education in Alaska finds achievement in weaving traditional knowledge into curriculum, in order to grow an understanding of how climate change actually lands. The results are humbling and expose the irrelevance of less progressive educational systems, including the ones I am familiar with. For instance, multicultural education is strengthened by preparing students in both English and Yup’ik language, the effects of thawing permafrost is taught in middle school, with units entitled: seasonal shifts, shrub expansion, and impact of subsistence. Pedagogy expands to include “Native ways of knowing,” in which the teaching context multiplies in support of the integration of place-based learning, as Indigenous practices mingle with scientific pedagogy. According to the Alaskan Native Rural Education Consortium, “Curriculum development processes and related teacher education efforts were decentralised as much as possible to ensure local input and shared control over decision making and implementation.”
9The effort to decentralize engages students towards multi-generational learning, validating elder traditions in an effort to link land-based experience to the everyday effects of climate change. After centuries of denial, including forced displacement, residential schools, and the precepts of settler society, land- based knowledge is linked to survival.
R. Barnhardt and A.O. Kawagley, eds., Sharing Our Pathways: Native Perspective on Education in Alaska (Fairbanks: Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska, 2011).
Removal from the land entirely erased the relationships to place that enabled native peoples to flourish. Settler societies understood well that breaking the ritual and spiritual connections to the land would ultimately defeat the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. These powers of persuasion are called policy, and it invents division. The division is often described as a human–human conflict. In fact, it is a human–land conflict that severs ties to other species, to the soil and thus, survival. Education in Alaska is inclusive of western textbooks and observational experience alike because survival rests on intimate knowledge of the landscape. I gained invaluably because Alaska pedagogy revealed the deep denial of survival in my immediate environment. Native ways of knowing and teaching inspire and appeal to an understanding of change in the landscape around us.
Tundra is part of a broad transition zone unbroken across the Northern landscape from Labrador to Alaska, over Lapland and snaking across Siberia. The climate is too cold, too wet, and generally too wind-exposed for tree growth, but these same factors encourage the growth of permafrost. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground that forms underground in sheets that are often hundreds of meters thick. The constantly changing nature of cold is expressed as shorter periods of freeze or especially across the mostly ﬂat interior of the state, also referred to as the Intermontane basin and Plateau region.