Gender, Environment and Change in the Arctic


Making genuine connections with the local community is an important step in building the relationships and trust needed to get answers to the researchers’ questions. Here graduate student Charlene Apok participates in a blanket toss last summer. Photo: Sarah Huang Indigenous communities in the Arctic are facing a lot of pressure. The region is warming twice as fast as other parts of the world, with significant impacts to the Arctic ecosystem. To subsistence communities that primarily hunt, fish, and gather their food, these changes are significant. Loss of sea ice is also opening the Arctic to other interests such as shipping, tourism, and natural resource extraction. How members of these communities respond and adapt to these changes is the focus of Purdue University environmental anthropologist Laura Zanotti's research.

Through the project, Collaborative Research: Gender, Environment, and Change: Exploring Shifting Roles in an Inupiat Community, Zanotti and her colleagues are working closely with community members in Barrow to interview women and men in Barrow, Alaska about how they are navigating environmental, political and economic changes in the 21st century. The National Science Foundation-funded project got off the ground last summer, with Zanotti and her team conducting the first round of interviews.

This month, Zanotti talks with Field Notes about the questions she’s exploring with this project and how the indigenous community in Barrow is playing a key role.

Barrow Alaska is the stage for a project where scientists are teaming with indigenous communities to understand and document how they are navigating environmental, political and economic changes in the 21st century. Photo: Sarah Huang

Field Notes (FN): Why are indigenous communities—and particularly female members—vulnerable to environmental and political changes?

Laura Zanotti (LZ): This is an interesting question, and one that we are exploring through a local perspective. There are reports from the United Nations and other organizations that point to both historical and colonial violence enacted on indigenous communities. This has reverberated in to the present.

It’s important to point out that we are working with community members to understand the perception of that label [vulnerable] and ways they adopt, or not, to being described by these terms.

FN: What are some of the challenges that are affecting indigenous communities the most today?

LZ: Community members have identified long-term interactions with “outsiders” that have not always been beneficial. There’s also the historical injustice, lack of respect and dignity associated with these interactions. These are issues we have come across a lot, especially in the context of doing research. We are very sensitive to the role researchers have played in this and how legacies may persist.

Other challenges, as you might imagine, are some of these large-scale global issues, like climate change, as well as the positive and negative impacts of economic development. People point to these issues as bringing new challenges, as well as opportunities to grow and move forward.

Researchers Sarah Huang (right) and Charlene Apok (left) are all smiles while collecting data. Photo: Sarah Huang

FN: What do you hope to learn as you embark on this body of research?

LZ: We have designed a collaborative approach for looking at the ways in which women, men and the community are facing different types of change in their livelihoods. We are especially interested in changes that happened in the past 30 years. We are working with indigenous women and men in Barrow to learn about their life histories and the challenges and opportunities they face. We also want to work with both women and men to discuss involvement in subsistence practices.


FN: This is a two-part question. First, how do you build the relationships with the community members in Barrow to get the answers to your questions and, second, what types of data are you collecting?

LZ: Building trust with communities and people that you are meeting for the first time is a long-term process. My co-principal investigator, Courtney Carothers, and myself are really dedicated to working in Alaska for the long term. We also very much want to be a part of a narrative that creates positive change and highlights some of the stories the community wants to tell that may otherwise be invisible to most.

The project is designed to be participatory. By that I mean we’ve been working along side project advisors who are community elders and leaders. They help us design interviews that, for example, get answers to our research questions in ways that are sensitive to community needs and meet research standards.

We spend lots of time—as much as possible—in Barrow talking with people, interviewing people and just being in the community for different important events.

FN: It sounds like you will have lots of interesting audio and visual records when this study is complete. How to you plan to share this wealth of information with the communities you work with and others?

LZ: One idea is to create an interactive eBook that might be used in workshops, in high school classrooms or in other ways. This would integrate the rich audio and visual material in a way that’s not only accessible now, but also accessible to future generations. We are partnering with the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow to archive audio records, if participants agree to that. We are also bouncing some of our ideas off of our project advisors.

In terms of the scientific community, we are exploring how we can design collaborative community projects that are meaningful and relevant. We anticipate that we will be writing some of this up in ways that other researchers can benefit from learning about our methodologies.

FN: Why is documenting the challenges faced by indigenous communities, as well as their responses to those challenges, important?

LZ: This is a great question, and certainly an important one. From my own perspective, indigenous people in North America are still somewhat invisible in our history books and are still negatively stereotyped by the media and elsewhere. Projects like this one can really help with putting a face on some of these larger global problems in a very local, place-based way. It will also challenge the dominant historical narrative about indigenous people.

To learn more about Lauren Zanotti and her work to understand gender, environment and change, visit: —Alicia Clarke