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Project highlights stories of leadership and strength

July 7th | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

For the last eight years, a group of students, community members, and researchers have been gathering stories of strength, leadership, and well-being on the North Slope.

It's part of a collaborative social science project looking at how women, men, and families build leadership across generations, especially in the hub community of Utqiaġvik.

"We talked with a lot of different leaders and had a lot of different focus groups and worked with people in different ways to figure out how best we could contribute, if at all, and [from that] emerged this coupling of leadership, strength, and well-being," said Laura Zanotti, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Center for the Environment at Purdue University. "We don't think of our work in terms of studying people, but we work with people to talk about the issues they're facing, which is why we really wanted it to be a community-directed project, so we didn't want to come in with predetermined ideas about what we wanted to do or talk about, which is in part why we spent several years before collecting data."

In 2009, Zanotti partnered with Courtney Carothers, associate professor in the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, to begin the project.

"She invited me to come up," explained Zanotti. "She knew I had previous experience working more in Northwest Alaska but thought I might be interested in partnering with her in Utqiaġvik. We knew we would only want to do some sort of community-directed project so we asked different leaders at that moment, different institutions and entities in the community about what they thought would be important and meaningful, something they would be interested in from a social science perspective."

Their team of graduate students, including Sarah Huang and Charlene Apok, worked with local advisers to develop the story-gathering project.

It was important to Zanotti and Carothers to ensure their work would ultimately go back to the community, so they partnered with both the Native Village of Barrow and the Iñupiat History, Language, and Culture Commission to develop an archive which will remain at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in perpetuity.

"One of the things we did talk to a lot of people about was who we were and what the research process was," Zanotti explained.

Through those conversations, their project took on a second focus, being guidelines or best practices for other researchers hoping to work on the North Slope.

"There's a lot of folks on the North Slope who have looked at these issues over time and are creating communities of scholars and scientists to work through some of those issues of non-locals essentially working in the community," she said. "Some of the things we're generating is social-science specific focused best practices about how to think about doing this type of work and how to ask yourself that very same question: What is your role here? Why are you here? And if you can't answer that initial question we're recommending to engage with that before you move forward with any kind of project."

Their team developed an informational video that asks viewers to think carefully about how to be respectful and thoughtful working in the Arctic. It includes suggestions on who to partner with, descriptions of local governmental and leadership organizations, and an introduction to the Iñupiaq Learning Framework and Iñupiat Values, both of which the group used while doing their own work.

Early on in developing their own project, they found they were sometimes thinking along the lines of a more "western framework," which didn't always fit with the way community members thought about, or described, themselves. They also heard firsthand locals' concerns about how narratives were often framed by non-locals.

"One of the things we heard early and often is oftentimes outsider narratives about Alaska Native peoples in general or those individuals and folks living in Utqiaġvik in particular are often negative stories or stories that don't necessarily focus on all of the amazing and distinctive things the community is doing and has been doing over time," Zanotti said.

One local contributor pointed them to the work of Dan O'Neill on Project Chariot.

"[He] documented the role of local newspapers in community lives and so we thought, the Arctic Sounder is the local newspaper here, so why don't we look for stories over time of strength and leadership and healing? Because this is this rich repository that's currently not [always] accessible by the internet but that's potentially this resource that either teachers could use or other researchers could use to look through stories of leadership over time and really have that be highlighted in a different way," she said.

They started with the earliest editions of the Sounder they could find at Tuzzy Library and combed through them for stories they could share.

Those, too, will be archived locally with the rest of the project.

Overall, Zanotti said she hopes their work with the stories will be a good resource for the community in years to come and that their best practices will help other researchers who come to the North Slope do it in a respectful and collaborative manner.

"We fully acknowledge that we are non-local individuals and we are eternally thankful and grateful for all the organizations, the Native Village of Barrow, the heritage commission, everyone that has taken time and engaged with us on this project, as well as the project advisers and participants who were definitely a core part of our team," she said.

More information on the project can be found at

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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