Developing Indigenous Research Methodologies in the Arctic

Stacy Rasmus engaged in peer observation of research at reindeer herding camp in Siberia. Photo: Stacy Rasmus In 2012, two social scientists began a pilot investigation with Native communities in Alaska and Russia to delve in to the ways Indigenous research methodologies can be used to study Arctic Indigenous youth and community resilience. The team is also interested in shedding light on the unique challenges and benefits that Indigenous social scientists encounter when conducting research in these communities.

Stacy Rasmus, an assistant research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is a Principal Investigator for a project titled “Developing Indigenous Research Methodologies in the Arctic (IRM-A): Examining the Impacts of Settlement on Socialization and Youth Experience in Alaska,”  funded by the National Science Foundation.

Rasmus works closely with Olga Ulturgasheva, co-PI of the project and a fellow social scientist and post-doctorate researcher at the University of Cambridge, to interview people in remote Yup’ik Alaska Native communities and Eveny community members in Siberia to capture the complex roles indigenous social scientists balance and to test research methodologies.

Both Rasmus and Ulturgasheva are from indigenous communities themselves and have spent years working with Arctic Native communities in the US, Canada and Europe.

This month, Rasmus and Ulturgasheva tell us more about their research interests, the IRM-A project and what the broader social science research community can learn from it.

Please tell our readers a little about your research interests and roles in the IRM-A project.

Stacy Rasmus: I am an assistant research professor in the Institute of Arctic Biology’s Center for Alaska Native Health Research. I lead several grants that together form a program of research based on increasing indigenous community and youth resilience and reducing disparities in substance abuse and suicide in Alaska Native and American Indian communities. I participated in this project as an American Indian researcher with over a decade of experience working with Yup’ik Alaska Native communities.

 Olga Ulturgasheva with an Eveny reindeer herder participant at camp.jpg. Photo: Stacy Rasmus

Olga Ulturgasheva: I am a post-doctorate research fellow in social anthropology at Clare Hall and Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. For more than a decade, I have been engaged in research on indigenous childhood, youth, religion, reindeer herding and hunting. I conceptualized and shaped the design of the collaborative project drawing from my own experience of being a native of the Eveny community in Northeastern Siberia where the research took place and as a social scientist specialized in the anthropology of Arctic indigenous communities.

Olga Ulturgasheva (right) and Stacy Rasmus (left) with a village elder in Emmonak Alaska. Photo: Olga Ulturgasheva

What are IRM-A's goals?

Olga Ulturgasheva: This study piloted a new research methodology that aims to address the question of what it means for an Indigenous person to conduct social science research in the settings of Indigenous communities in the Arctic. The study aims to identify challenges, advantages and disadvantages of conducting research as an Indigenous person in an Indigenous community.

Stacy Rasmus: I might also add that we hope to learn more about Arctic Indigenous adaptations – particularly in response to potentially catastrophic events such as those following the collapse of the Soviet Union; the colonial expansion into Alaska attenuating land loss and settlement policies; and the extreme climate changes causing displacement of entire communities and massive shifts in subsistence strategies.

What types of data did you collect, and what will those data contribute to the project?

Stacy Rasmus: We conducted interviews with 24 community members. We interviewed both Yup’ik and Eveny community members at both sites to develop a more in-depth understanding of Arctic adaptations in the context of rapid social change and settlement. How did families stay together? How did important cultural and spiritual practices continue? What remains critical to survival today in the Arctic? How can the younger generation prepare themselves for an uncertain future in the Arctic?

Olga Ulturgasheva: We utilized an innovative method of anthropological peer observation. Instead of engaging in yet another auto-ethnographic or self-reflexive enterprise, we documented the researcher/participant interaction from a double perspective of Native and non-Native anthropologists and applied a new ethnographic method of peer observation.

What makes this project unique?

Stacy Rasmus: One of our goals for this project was to change indigenous peoples’ attitudes and experience with research and increase the number of indigenous people engaging in research in their own and other indigenous communities. Historically, research has not always benefited indigenous peoples directly. In many Native American and other indigenous communities research has come to be associated with the greater colonial enterprise as something that is imposed on communities and controlled by the “objective outsider.”

The IRM-A project is innovative for having only Indigenous researchers and community co-researchers engaged in the research efforts. The benefits are increased ownership of the research by the communities and a deeper sense of connection in the community to the process and outcomes from the research implementation.

The study also takes into account a gendered dimension of how to know things and who can know things in the Arctic. We structured our Indigenous research model in accordance with local perceptions of gender roles. Gender plays an important role in Arctic indigenous communities determining one’s place and role in everyday life. Gender roles for Alaskan and Siberian communities are clearly marked, socially and spatially. We are, ourselves, younger adult Indigenous female researchers and we have both encountered tensions and dramas in our community-based research related to our gender and social status.

lga Ulturgasheva and Stacy Rasmus are bundled up to brave the -40F temperatures as the prepare to travel to Alakanuk, Alaska to interview research participants. Photo: Stacy Rasmus

What has this body of research taught you so far?

Olga Ulturgasheva: Our preliminary peer observations suggest that involvement of Indigenous researchers who possess lived experiences and valuable knowledge of local specificities is of vital importance for understanding lives of youth in remote Arctic communities. We share cultural and social experiences that help to facilitate youth active involvement in such projects and research endeavors. Indigenous researchers’ participation incorporates not only their informative and analytical capacities but also their active long-term participation in the lives of indigenous youth and the community lives.  —Alicia Clarke

For more information visit Developing Indigenous Research Methodologies in the Arctic.