Students explore at archaeology camp
Caitlynn Tautuk Hanna knows how to look on the bright side.
Despite the rain and chill and occasional gear mishaps, the 16-year old South Anchorage High School student took a positive outlook on the blustery weather that hung over Salmon Lake outside of Nome last month.
"The rain ... taught us always to be prepared for upcoming weather changes. With the rain the girls' tent even started to leak, which definitely improved my tolerance for adversity," she wrote in an email.
Having a matter-of-fact approach to challenges and an open mind for new experiences were skills that benefitted the 10 tough participants in this year's Nome Archaeology Camp, who signed up to spend a week camping in the country and learning about the history and natural environment of the Bering Straits region.
"I love to camp and [am] an alumn[a] of Alaska Geographic. I heard of the camp from an instructor last year and [am spending] my summer in Council, so I already was near Nome," she said. "The offer of archaeology was interesting, to learn more about the past and see historical and ancient sites."
The high school students, like Hanna, hailed from Wales, Shishmaref, Savoonga, Stebbins, Elim, Nome, and Anchorage and had diverse backgrounds and interests, which fit well with the interdisciplinary nature of the camp.
"We wanted it to be really focused on the culture of the Bering Straits region and there are many ways to learn about [that]," said Hannah Atkinson, an anthropologist with the National Park Service, based in Kotzebue. "I like that they have all these different ways of appreciating and studying and protecting culture that are presented to them."
The camp explored the many facets of the discipline of archaeology, along with the more general theme of cultural preservation and understanding. Partially for that reason, the group did not do any kind of excavation work, which is often typical for archaeology camps.
"One reason is excavation is destructive, so archaeologists don't do excavation unless there's a very good reason to do it — unless there's vital information we need to learn more about people of the past," Atkinson said.
She explained there was no pressing research need that required an excavation within the four sites the students visited. Excavation also takes a lot of time, so by not doing any, it opened up the opportunity for a host of other activities.
"In Nome, there's so many organizations and people who are doing good work in cultural preservation and that goes across a spectrum of disciplines, [like] oral history, museum work, cultural centers," she said. "We wanted to include a wide variety of professionals so the students can see all the different professions that are out there."
The camp was first held in 2015, after representatives from Kawerak Inc., approached the National Park Service with the idea for a field school for kids, said Jeff Rasic, chief of resources for Gates of the Arctic National Park.
For its second year, Kawerak, the park service, Alaska Geographic, Bering Straits Native Corp., the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum, and the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., partnered to put together the camp's program of activities.
"We think some of the things they take away from this camp have nothing to do with archaeology but have a lot to do with learning in general, being curious, asking questions, looking to their own community and people around them that are experts and some of those things may get them thinking about potential careers," he explained.
During the camp, the students spent time at four sites, including Pilgrim Hot Springs, went on field trips, spent a day working with fish biologists with the economic development corporation, took a tour of the cultural center in Nome, participated in an oral history workshop, and visited the museum.
"It's fun to get them thinking about how exhibits are born and how stories are told through museums and cultural centers and we stressed with them that they can contribute to that and they can take part and shape those things," said Rasic.
For Hanna, one of her favorite parts of the camp was seeing the history she'd always heard about all around her at the old sites.
"I love to hike and do not like to keep still so when we did field work it was very enjoyable to me, just being able to see the old sites we went to — to even get a glance at how our ancestors lived and [see] all the stories I had been told of come to life as I saw the places they lived."
This interplay between stories and the natural world was a highlight of the camp for Nome elder Guy Martin who, along with his wife Blue, led storytelling workshops with the students.
"We took away good feelings and a good sense of what the organizers are trying to convey to the youth. Science can mix and does mix with Native stories and legends from our ancestors," Martin said. "It shows that they can work hand in hand and in some cases, these stories and legends from our elders are brought forward through science as far as time is concerned and archaeological evidence."
He gave the example of a site mentioned in stories told by his elders. The story inspired researchers to look for the site, which they eventually found. Without the story, the researchers wouldn't have gone exploring and through their work, the story was given another layer.
"When the scientists give a timeline and the elders give a timeline with their stories and when they mesh, they complement each other and there's a period of veracity — a period of truth — which is gratifying to the memory of our elders and a compliment to the scientific community," Martin said.
He described it as "honoring our elders with science."
"I don't know why it hasn't been done sooner, but it's a wonderful thing," he said.
Martin hopes the students walk away with a greater understanding of and appreciation for this relationship and for the stories that are central to the region and its history.
"As they grow up they will have that in their mind that sharing information nowadays is good," Martin said. "I think it will help the young people as they grow older that they've seen or been exposed to both worlds and in some cases, both worlds can be compatible. It gives them another leg up on life to have two different views and see where they can mesh at times."
As for Hanna, she said she learned to pay closer attention to the world around her, to look for signs of the past in the present.
"I learned to analyze things more carefully," she wrote. "I urge anyone who has the slightest interest in history and/or archaeology to apply to this camp, you will learn a lot; I definitely will keep my mind open to the possibilities of a future career."
That was one of the goals of the camp's organizers — to open up doors for local kids, whether they be in archaeology or not.
"We want any information that we find out through archaeology to be benefitting the people of the communities here who are the direct descendents of the people who were living on the land in the past," said Atkinson. "That's one of the reasons that we do educational camps is we want young people to grow up with an understanding of the cultural resources in our region and how to responsibly study those resources and get information from them but also respect the archaeological sites and respect everything around them."
After all, Rasic said, these studies shape the way people see their world, their history, and their landscape. It's all interconnected.
"These are the roots of human history and they're important touchstones for people thinking about their place in history and their place in the world — how we interact with nature and how we take care of places or don't take care of places, simple things like how we get our food and how we structure our homes and interact with neighboring people. Through archeology, we get a long-term perspective on all that stuff."