RD BA graduate Nicholes on how DANSRD prepared him for international graduate school success

At the end of Spring 2022, I will submit my graduate thesis on social movements and cultural trauma as part of the Human Security Master’s Program at Aarhus University in Denmark. Five years ago, I could not have imagined myself nearing the completion of a graduate degree or even the type of person applying to doctoral programs. Academia, in general, was outside anything I could really have imagined. All of this taken into consideration — I can only give gratitude for what feels like an endless number of people willing to put in the effort supporting me throughout my academic career. A significant amount of that effort rests with the excellent faculty and staff at the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development.

Nicholes (back row, second from the right) with DANSRD faculty, staff, and fellow graduates, May 2019.

I first began my studies in the Rural Development Bachelor of Arts program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2017, leaving my home in Seattle and heading north to Alaska. I was nervous and excited about my transition to Alaska as anyone will be when taking the leap to somewhere new. I should not have worried in the least however, as the support I received from my professors and staff was fantastic from day one. All my needs as I settled into my new home were met without issue and the university environment was undoubtedly one of the most welcoming I had ever experienced. Once my studies began, I found that the topics covered were comprehensive in scope and intensive in their depth. The Rural Development program covered topics ranging from law, public policy, project development, environmental crises, history, ethics, business planning, and human development theory.

Following my UAF graduation, I applied and was accepted into Aarhus University in 2020. One more move taking me further and farther than I had been on my own. Surprisingly, I found little to no issues adapting to postgraduate education. My Rural Development degree had prepared me. Frankly, I should have realized that fact from the first class I ever took at UAF, Rural Alaska Land Issues. I still remember the first day and walking into Professor Kathleen Meckel’s class — Not only one of the most welcoming professors I ever had the opportunity to meet, but also an excellent guide into what would be an entire semester covering Alaskan land laws and policy. There was never a separation between what I studied and how it impacted Alaska, which helped me develop a skill set used throughout my master’s program today — particularly in research.

Moesgaard Campus (MOCA) where the Anthropology, Human Security, Archaeology and Sustainable Heritage Management Programs are held at Aarhus University.

On the practical side, I also learned various skills essential to anyone’s academic career. I learned how to produce written work and deliverables at the postgraduate level. More than that, I was given a practical education on project design, presentation, grant writing, and research development that I had never learned outside of university. When diving into our final semester, I received in-depth support on developing a thesis and research methods while covering criticism and theoretical developments in research methodology.  At the end of the program, I felt more than capable of discussing theory with my professors, covering figures like Amartya Sen and Paulo Freire, depopulation theory, and many others. I also found myself throughout the program learning through discussions with my classmates and peers as the diverse cohort I studied with all had experiences reached outside the classroom. Even though my studies in the master’s program have shifted their focus outside of the Alaskan context, I still find my research revolving around many of the same topics I studied in the Rural Development program. Issues of inequality, ecological crises, food scarcity, public policy, and law are not only limited to Alaska. Additionally, the focus in Alaska didn’t restrict me in the least; Instead, it allowed me to delve deeper into the topics at hand around real issues felt in the region. Ultimately, as a master’s student, research and my thesis are the final goals; I would have been on a less sure path if not for the Rural Development program and everyone involved.

Rooftop view of Aarhus, Denmark.

DANSRD students at the 2018 Alaska Native Studies Conference

DANSRD students from my class RD 475 Senior Project, Eric Petersen, Pamela Murphy, and Debbie Demientieff, presented on their senior projects at the Alaska Native Studies Conference in Juneau April 14-15. The students did a great job and got feedback and questions throughout the conference about their projects, already making a difference through their scholarship!

Eric Petersen: Alaska Native Child Adoption      

Alaska Native Child Adoption Alaska Native children have been adopted out from their biological families, communities, and cultures for decades creating generations of Alaska Natives disconnected from their cultures. While there has been significant progress made since 1978 when the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted there are still issues that need to be resolved. One significant problem is that biological fathers that are not on the pre-adoption birth certificate are unable to put their name on the child’s birth certificate after the adoption is finalized. This causes a void in the child’s connection to their culture as well as impacting possible benefits from increased blood quantum. This project explores this issue and suggests possible solutions to solve the problem.

Pamela Murphy: Sustainable Education Delivery Plan

The Bristol Bay Campus faces the burning question of how to get post-secondary, relevant, education to remote locations in rural Alaska for all its 42 communities in a way that is sustainable over time. Within the Bristol Bay Region there is a high priority for quality education to prepare youth with skills to succeed in college or vocational schools. Title III funding was recently awarded to the Bristol Bay Campus to develop sustainable programs for Dillingham and its outlining service area to accomplish this vision. The purpose of this project is to establish a Sustainable Delivery Education plan, starting with the mobile welding lab pilot project. This mobile welding lab will feature covered welding stations in a shipping container and start off in the community of St. Paul, Alaska.

Debbie Demientieff: Portraits of Resilience: Celebrating Who We Are

Our traditional value of taking care of our people is essential to this project. Traditionally people have natural role models that exemplify a good way of being, a good way of living. These role models or mentors were naturally known as tribes lived close in kinship and as a community. Now, in a world where families live apart from their tribal lands and their community it is important to share the success of Alaska Native people. People who are living a good life must be uplifted and serve as a good story for others to gain their own understanding of what they themselves are capable of achieving as Alaska Native people. Today, it is important to identify these leaders and role models so that others who may never get to meet them personally are able to learn from their experiences through their stories. This project explores the use of oral history as a means of documenting and sharing Alaska Native achievement and success as a guide for others to excel and reach their own personal level of success. They will be able to look at the experiences of successful people and know that they too can make the effort to realize their own goals.

I am so proud of these students!

“‘Strengthening Sovereign Responses to Sex Trafficking Conference’ and Our Alaska Native Community” a guest post by Rural Development MA student Cordelia Kellie

Over 300 people gathered January 30-31 in Palm Springs, California to convene at the first annual Strengthening Sovereign Responses to Sex Trafficking in Indian Country conference, on the traditional land of the Agua Caliente peoples. Alaska Native and American Indian community and tribal representatives met with federal agencies, advocates, survivors, sexual assault experts and other national and federal partners from across Native nations, including Alaska.

The organization hosting was the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition (MIWSAC), which shared the story about how years ago, they started hearing anecdotes of sex trafficking in their state; they collected those stories and it became the basis of their research into the topic published in Garden of Truth (2011). Now MIWSAC is one of the leading Native organizations working to end sex trafficking. Also known as human trafficking or modern slavery, sex trafficking is the use of force, coercion, or manipulation for commercial sexual exploitation. Traffickers target a community’s most vulnerable and there are a variety of areas of susceptibility.

When we think of labels, we self-organize conceptually. We put people and things in boxes. We organize the state in our mind as those who are sex trafficked and those who are not sex trafficked, with all our friends, family and acquaintances — seemingly everyone we know — being the latter.

Sex traffickers don’t think that way; they don’t see someone in the box of “not trafficked’, and decide not to touch them. All they see is vulnerability, and too many of our Alaska Native and rural community members are the target.

Is there anyone who might come to mind that you know who may lack a social safety net? Someone under duress from economic hardship? What about someone emotionally vulnerable, suffering from low self-esteem and self-worth, or someone who just needs to get by and has suffered from abuse before? One of the informational focuses of the conference is being able to see the shades of trafficking, and breaking down those conceptual boxes.

Because in those terms, names may come to mind. In these scenarios, those who find themselves, for example, intimidated into performing a sex act so they have a place to stay also might not think of themselves using the term “trafficked,’ but they are. Maybe some think their trafficker is their boyfriend or girlfriend; their trafficker could be a family member. The lack of awareness about sex trafficking in our state is such that many might not be able to identify themselves as being trafficked, or even what that is, or may not be in a position to connect to resources. People often just call it, “the life.’

At the conference, advocates, service providers, government and law enforcement officials and many more were able to learn about the most pressing needs to prevent trafficking and how to support survivors, hearing from survivors themselves. One survivor shared that she honestly didn’t think she was trafficked, she just thought that it was just her way of surviving and having a measure of control.

A representative from Covenant House Alaska spoke at a plenary session about how specifically Alaska Native girls get lured to the city with the promise of a living situation and a job, to find out that it’s not what they thought it would be. Sometimes girls in “the life’ might recruit other girls, like cousins or friends. Some might even find it to be of equal challenges to the struggles faced in their home communities.

But just as the issue was shared and discussed by national experts working in this field, so were solutions.

We know that indigenous women have been sexually exploited on this continent for hundreds of years, as a way to break down Native social structures and institute patriarchy. Modern sex trafficking is a symptom of colonization, and protecting and growing a strong social fabric is part of the work of decolonization. Every community member has a role in being a strong advocate to those in our sphere, and we all have a role in reweaving that social fabric where it is ripped, weak, torn or frayed.

There is a very real need for resources for safe housing, shelters and spaces in our communities so that people wanting to escape a bad situation are able to do so. There is a need for awareness for what our cousins are doing, what our nieces’ lives look like, or if our friends are truly okay. And there needs to be education in our industries and in transportation, of what to look for and what to do if someone suspects a person is being trafficked.

They say in Alaska that everyone knows everyone. If you’re Native, you’re doubly all related.

That goes for Alaska’s most vulnerable, because they are our family members. Ending sex trafficking in Alaska — it is on all of us to be good relatives.