Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Category Archives: Social & Human Sciences

Retaining teachers in the Alaskan bush

A mural in one of the rural schools where Ute Kaden is doing her research is very colorful. All photos: courtesy Ute Kaden.

A mural in one of the rural schools where Ute Kaden is doing her research is very colorful. All photos: courtesy Ute Kaden.

There’s no question that life is different in the Alaskan bush. Challenging as the remoteness, weather conditions, and life in a Native community may be, these are often the qualities that initially draw teachers to rural Alaska. Unfortunately, these same qualities often send them packing for urban centers.

Isolation

This is what the commute to some rural communities looks like—not a Starbucks in sight!

This is what the commute to some rural communities looks like—not a Starbucks in sight!

Most of Alaska’s rural communities are accessible only by airplane or boat. Secluded locations coupled with long winter nights, cold temperatures, and limited housing often lead to feelings of isolation. Relatively low pay and high living costs are also contributing factors to high turnover rates and teacher shortages.

Ute Kaden prepares to travel to rural Alaska.

Ute Kaden prepares to travel to rural Alaska.

In a three-year study funded by the National Science Foundation, Ute Kaden and her research team (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) are looking at how to keep effective teachers in rural Alaska and throughout the circumpolar north.

During the study, which launched in August, 2013, current teachers, as well as those who have left their post already after two years or less, will be surveyed and interviewed about their training and experiences. NSF has already developed several publications with tips about teaching and doing research in indigenous communities. Kaden’s team includes Native researchers who will conduct focus groups and interviews with Elders, school board, and Tribal Council members.

Despite their isolation, most of the rural schools are like their more urban counterparts, including having gyms with rock climbing walls.

Despite their isolation, most of the rural schools are like their more urban counterparts, including having gyms with rock climbing walls.

“We really hope to establish and develop good relationships with rural Alaskan communities. This requires a certain protocol consistent with tribal customs,” Kaden explains. “We want to engage people who will talk honestly and openly about the issues facing the rural education system and this requires trust and respect for the tribal system. Understandably, there is some skepticism about Western education given the oppressive past, current inconsistencies, and high teacher turnover rates which is reflected in low academic student achievement.”

Reality versus fantasy

“They come for various reasons – Alaskan adventure, a first employment opportunity, or perhaps they lost a job and this is a fresh start. Most have never visited Alaska before and are either at the very start or very end of their career. We don’t see a lot of people from the middle,” explains Kaden.

Living and working in rural Alaska often proves more difficult and less romantic than teachers initially thought, says Kaden. Consequently, many teachers leave after a very short time. “We see an incredible annual turnover rate in rural areas each year related to the overall harshness of working in the northern part of the country,” Kaden explains. “We need to better understand why in order to improve the education system in rural Alaska and around the circum-Arctic.”

Difficulty immersing

Not your typical school yard.

Not your typical school yard.

One issue for many teachers is the lack of preparedness for living in a culture so completely different from their own. In rural Alaska more than 90% of students are Alaskan Natives and each community differs from the next. Teachers are treated as temporary guests, which can make community integration difficult. Teachers must learn a great deal on the fly.

“The infrastructure and cultural aspects in these mostly indigenous villages is very different from where most teachers come from. Consequently, teachers often have difficulty bonding with students and the community,” says Kaden.

Multifaceted job descriptions

Teachers use video to enhance their lessons.

Teachers use video to enhance their lessons.

In the United States, teachers are usually trained in just one subject area. However, teachers in rural Alaska may be required to teach several grade levels across many subjects. In addition to school obligations teachers are typically responsible for hosting outside activities at the school, which is often used as a community center and may be the only place in town with Internet. Consequently, these teachers have very long work days.

Job disappointment

All of the above afore-mentioned factors can contribute to feelings of loneliness and frustration. About 60% of Alaskan teachers leave the Arctic region after only two years. Consequently, students and their communities suffer from the inconsistency and lack of stability.

“Communities want effective teachers who inform parents and students alike. Good student –teacher and community relations are critical. How can we prepare teachers to be effective regardless of their time spent in a community?” says Kaden. “We can’t expect most younger people to spend their whole life in rural Alaska. But, how many years can we expect? Two to three years would be great, but teacher effectiveness is equally important to communities. To do this, we must better prepare teachers for the realities of living and working in rural Alaska so that they have a positive impact regardless of tenure.”

Improved teacher training

Kaden is also working with teachers and communities to incorporate and strengthen a field practicum in which university pre-service teachers, those still working on their qualifications, can be involved in several different rural classrooms prior to pursuing a full-time position. This exposure allows pre-service teachers the opportunity to work alongside effective rural teachers in a Native village. The experience helps prepare teachers for the social and environmental challenges of living and working in rural communities. They learn to better manage student needs and expectations while gaining first-hand knowledge of native communities and how to work with students from different cultural backgrounds through community events and immersion in Native traditions and subsistence lifestyles. Teachers are also offered a university support network, mentoring, and professional development.

“Our research will inform teacher educators, school administrators, and community stakeholders about how to support teachers with pedagogical and cultural training while stressing the need for patience, respect, and flexibility. We want to give them the tools to effectively teach multilevel classes and place-relevant lessons. By collaboratively helping teachers to develop community relationships and incorporate art, culture, and local material into their classrooms, we hope we will enhance the educational experience for both teachers and students,” says Kaden. “Rural education in northern Alaska is different than elsewhere and our research, hopefully, sheds light on these differences as well as the beauty of living and teaching there.” Additional information about the project can be found on the Web: https://sites.google.com/a/alaska.edu/nsf-research/  —Marcy Davis

Promoting Diversity in Science

Dr. Linda Hayden (left) and colleagues at the 2013 National Science Foundation Gender Summit. Pictured, from left to right: Hayden, Loretta Moore, Cynthia Winston, Sonya Smith, Kelly Mack. Photo: courtesy NSF

Dr. Linda Hayden (left) and colleagues at the 2013 National Science Foundation Gender Summit. Pictured, from left to right: Hayden, Loretta Moore, Cynthia Winston, Sonya Smith, Kelly Mack. Photo: courtesy NSF

Head north into the Arctic and you’ll find a self-selected crew of researchers devoting their field seasons to uncovering the mysteries and facts of the region. Look closely and you can’t help but notice these scientists are primarily white and male.

Minorities and Women in Science

But efforts are afoot to diversify the Arctic research community, and at the helm is Linda Hayden, Professor of Computer Science at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Fourteen years ago, Hayden spearheaded the effort to recruit and provide opportunities to minorities and women interested in polar science and climate. Today, her efforts have taken on a life of their own.

“The idea is to build collaborations that enhance diversity in polar science and engage those who do not self-identify as future polar scientists. I want students to understand that we need them and their talents and their skill sets to solve challenges in polar research,” says Hayden. “Like other areas of science, polar science greatly benefits from diversity, which balances bias, enlivens problem solving and expands on methods, explanations and approaches.  So, any strategy that engages the next generation of polar scientists must actively engage diverse participants, including arctic people, underrepresented minorities and women.

Scientific Opportunities for Underrepresented Undergraduates

Participating in one of the workshops spearheaded by Dr. Hayden has been life changing for some students. Photo: Linda Hayden

Participating in one of the workshops spearheaded by Dr. Hayden has been life changing for some students. Photo: Linda Hayden

ECSU is a “teaching-focused, community-engaged” Minority-Serving Institution in northeastern North Carolina. Located near the Atlantic Ocean, ECSU has long studied marine and coastal environments, especially through remote sensing techniques. In 2002 Hayden founded the Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Education and Research (CERSER), part of ECSU’s Mathematics and Computer Science Department. As CERSER’s director, Hayden works diligently to provide opportunities for students in STEM fields.

Over the last 14 years the Arctic and Antarctic Research Experience for Undergraduates (AaA-REU) program has evolved with funding from the U.S. Navy, the University of Kansas’ Center for Remote Sensing of the Ice Sheets (CReSIS), with whom ECSU has a long-standing relationship, and the National Science Foundation.

The REU objective is simple: promote professional development of historically underrepresented undergraduate students (African American, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and women) through facilitating their participation in polar, ocean and marine science research.

Drawing from Personal Experience

“I think that in my role as an African American woman that it’s important that these opportunities are made available at least to the groups within my reach. Even if they know they are available they don’t see themselves as being participants. Sometimes, however, just helping them understand that opportunities are available is all it takes,” Hayden said in an interview with the Renaissance Computing Center, UNC Chapel Hill.

Admission by Application

Each year Hayden and faculty mentors select twenty-five undergraduate students. This includes 20 REU students and 5 pre-service teachers in the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) component. Ultimately, Hayden hopes to build a group from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds.

Typically, applicants are majors in mathematics, computer science, geosciences, biology, and physics. Students are required to have completed thirty hours of coursework by the start of the program and have a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Any student who meets these criteria is eligible for the program, but students who are in groups traditionally underrepresented in science are highly encouraged to apply. Each participant receives a stipend of $3600, travel costs, on-campus room and board and college credit, depending on the school through which they are partnered.

Summer Immersion

The Association of Computer and Information Science Engineering Departments at Minority institutions (ADMI), a professional organization, will select and support an additional 8-10 REU students. During the 8-week summer internship (late May-late July) participants will work in teams of 2-5 with a faculty mentor.

Several teams will be based in Elizabeth City. Others who work with faculty at a partnering institution spend a week or two at the institution to become familiar with their project and develop a relationship with their team. Partnering institutions for 2014 include: University of Kansas, Indiana University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Washington.  Students engage daily with mentors and their team. Seminars, lunch meetings, and social functions promote sharing and bonding.

Mentoring

Projects fall within one of four broad areas including cyberinfrastructure, wherein students work with faculty to develop innovative techniques for sharing data with polar scientists, Arctic and Antarctic science, and STEM education. Projects depend on the expertise of the faculty. Students must present a final oral presentation, poster, or paper at summer’s end.

Student-mentor relationships continue after the program with on-line mentoring and follow-up during the academic year. Post internship opportunities may include participation in national conferences, field work in the Polar Regions, and graduate studies.

“One thing that makes this REU unique is that we have a 2-tier system. Students can enter the program at the start of their freshman year and build a polar science vocabulary while learning about climate change science through their research project. Some do three years and then usually go on to grad school at that point. Some students return to mentor other students in following years,” Hayden says.

Life Changing Experience

One such student, Jerome Mitchell, now a graduate student at Indiana University who completed the program in 2006, cites his experience as a turning point in his career.

“Conducting quality research as an undergraduate is a privilege, but many are unable to participate in [these] rich experiences. My experiences as an undergraduate provided a gateway to conducting research in Antarctica and have provided a solid foundation for thinking independently and writing technical literature, which has been a necessity for me to thrive in a Ph.D. program. I partially owe my successes as a student researcher to undergraduate research programs, and I highly recommend [them]!”

To date, the REU has been increasingly successful. About half of participants are women and three-quarters minorities. Hayden hopes project funding will continue. —Marcy Davis

For more information about the REU or to become a faculty mentor visit http://nia.ecsu.edu/

To apply submit an application, current transcript, resume, a one page statement of goals, and one letter of recommendation by April 23, 2014, to:

Dr. Linda Hayden
Campus Box 672 ECSU
1704 Weeksville Road
Elizabeth City, NC 27909

Multidisciplinary Pilot Study Explores Tlingit Cairns in Southeast Alaska

Drs. Ralph Hartley (left) and William Hunt exploring one of the cairns. All photos courtesy William Hunt.

Drs. Ralph Hartley (left) and William Hunt exploring one of the cairns. All photos courtesy William Hunt.

For many, (semi) retirement is a chance to kick back and relax. But for archeologist Bill Hunt, retirement gave him the opportunity to delve in to unexplored areas of southeast Alaska and uncover the secrets behind manmade rock piles called cairns that dot the landscape.

Hunt spent the first chapter of his career as an archaeologist with the National Park Service (NPS). Now,he is an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska where he and his research partner Ralph Hartley are leading a two-year, multi-disciplinary pilot study titled A Multidisciplinary Exploratory Study of Alpine Cairns, Baranof Island, Southeast Alaska.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project brings together archeologists, lichenologists, oral historians, the Tlingit community and others to document, map, date and understand the roles cairns play in Tlingit oral history and culture. His work is also the subject of Cairns Uncovered, an upcoming documentary recently featured on Field Notes.

This month, Hunt talks to Field Notes about his project and shares some initial findings.

FN: What is a cairn?

Documentation of an alpine cairn by UN-L Graduate Student Mike Chodoronek (left), NET videographer Pete Steegen, and OSU Graduate Student Nijmah Ali (right).

Documentation of an alpine cairn by UN-L Graduate Student Mike Chodoronek (left), NET videographer Pete Steegen, and OSU Graduate Student Nijmah Ali (right).

WH: A cairn is a manmade pile of rock. They can be very small—just five or six rocks piled on top of one another–or they can be huge. They occur all over the world and are used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to mark burial sites, trails, and are sometimes used to mark where meat is stored. Those are some uses, but there are many, many more.

For the Tlingit, they have a story about a great flood that occurred some time in the un-dateable past in which the Raven caused the water to rise. The water came up out of the ground and the people had to scramble up the mountainsides to keep from drowning. If you ask the Tlingit what these cairns are, they’ll say they are flood markers. Others will tell you that people took refuge from brown bears and other animals in the larger ones.

FN: What do you hope to learn from this multidisciplinary pilot study?

We are interested in finding out how old these cairns are and why they were built. We also want to understand what role the cairns play in Tlingit cultural mythology and oral history.

FN: What made you want to start a project focused on the cairns of southeast Alaska?

UNAVCO LiDAR Engineer Marianne Okal explaining her how her instrument works to OSU Professor Dr. Bruce McCune.

UNAVCO LiDAR Engineer Marianne Okal explaining her how her instrument works to OSU Professor Dr. Bruce McCune.

In 2007, I was just finishing a project at Sitka National Historic Site, which is on Baranof Island in southeast Alaska, when a Sitka elder told the park superintendent about how his grandparents, aunts and uncles would tell him that there was a large cairn on top of a nearby mountain. He was wondering if it was actually there and if we could find out anything about it.

Together with the Forest Service, the NPS, Coast Guard and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, we went to the two mountains. We found eight or nine cairns at one location in the five or six hours we were on the mountain top.  In another trip, we then went to another mountain and documented 14 more cairns.

I was really intrigued by all this because nobody had ever documented these cairns or done any archeology to speak of in the interior of these islands. All the archaeological research has occurred on the coast for various reasons. When we uncovered 24 cairns in such a short amount of time, in two places, that was really enlightening!

FN: Tell us a little more about the different scientific disciplines you are bringing together to document and learn more about cairns.

We have several scientists converging on this area to try to solve the questions surrounding cairns. We have oral historian Tom Thornton, from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, who is interviewing Tlingit elders in a variety of villages in southeast Alaska to get information about these cairns and see what’s in the oral history.

Then we have a lichenologist named Bruce McCune and a graduate student Nijmah Ali from Oregon State University who are helping us age several of these cairns using lichen growths. This is called lichenometrics.

We also have a team of archeologists–myself, Ralph, Amanda Davey and graduate student Mike Chodoronek–from the University of Nebraska and [we] are working with UNAVCO engineer Marianne Okal to map our survey area with ground-based LiDAR. This will provide a really detailed map of the area.

FN: Is the Tlingit community participating in this project?

The Tlingit community is involved in a couple of different ways. Before we even started this project we met with tribal councils in Angoon and Sitka, and presented them with what we wanted to do [to] see if they had any concerns or recommendations. They were very helpful and very interested because with the loss [of] elders, their cultural “encyclopedias,” they are also losing different aspects of their history. So they were very interested in finding out as much as they can about their past.

We also offered to bring students from both communities to work with our crews while we were up in the mountains. Many students already had summer jobs fishing, but we did have a member of the Sitka community come up and conduct research with us for a couple of weeks.

Some of the field team relaxing in the dining\laboratory tent. From left to right: Mike Chodornek (UN-L), Dr. Ralph Hartley (UN-L), Pete Stegen (NET), Nijmah Ali (OSU), and Dean Einerson (PFS Camp Manager).

Some of the field team relaxing in the dining\laboratory tent. From left to right: Mike Chodornek (UN-L), Dr. Ralph Hartley (UN-L), Pete Stegen (NET), Nijmah Ali (OSU), and Dean Einerson (PFS Camp Manager).

FN: What have you and your team learned so far?

One thing that we’ve found is that they vary in size—from small ones with seven or eight big stones to cairns with hundreds of large stones. They have a lot of open spaces – no soil fill inside them. They generally occur as widely spaced features in rows on mountainside benches facing the water. This arrangement made us reject their use as hunting features like blinds or to control the direction of animal movement.

We took some of them partially apart. In some cases we took one-forth or one-half of an individual cairn apart. We did not find artifacts in them or around the margins of the cairns. However, two of the cairns contained a bone, which turned out to be vertebrae from a Sitka deer in each case. We don’t know how old the bones are, or if they are of any significance. What we’ll do is submit soil samples collected under the cairns and samples from each one of the bones to a lab for radiocarbon analysis. Dates from the soils will give us a “not earlier than” date while those from the bones could provide an actual construction or use date if the bones are not modern.

The lichenologist developed a new technique for relatively dating the cairns based on lichen growth by establishing the pioneer lichen species, which [species] grew later, how they overlap, how many different species are present, etc. We should have an idea of which cairns are the oldest and which are newer, as well as the radiocarbon dates.

FN: What’s next?

Now we’re at the point where everyone is looking at the data they collected. We will then prepare a final report for the U.S. Forest Service, the two tribes and the NSF.

Our examination of these cairns was really preliminary. In the future I’d like to do more in-depth investigations of cairns—really take them completely apart and see what’s going on.—Alicia Clarke

Ancient adaptation and climate change in the Aleutian Islands

An aerial photo of the Islands of the Four Mountains. Photo: Ken Wilson, author of "The Aleutian Islands of AK: Living on the Edge"

An aerial photo of the Islands of the Four Mountains. Photo: Ken Wilson, author of “The Aleutian Islands of AK: Living on the Edge”

The Islands of the Four Mountains in Alaska’s central Aleutians are about as inhospitable an environment as a person can imagine. Bad weather reigns, the wind and rain conspiring to create the perfect conditions for hypothermia. Mount Cleveland, an active volcano on Chuginadak, erupts at regular intervals, and simply accessing the archipelago is an exercise in endurance.

Adaptation

All of this may explain why very little is known about the early settlers who crossed the Bering Strait and eventually made their way to North America. After entering Alaska some of these early inhabitants moved southward to the Alaska Peninsula and then westward, traveling through and occupying the Islands of the Four Mountains. As they adapted to their maritime world these people periodically faced natural disasters: tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and changing climate and sea levels.

Surviving extreme weather and climate fluctuations

Understanding how these people adapted to their fluctuating environment is critical, informing both scientists and Pacific Rim communities how changing climate and periodic, large magnitude geologic hazards contribute to a changing physical world.

The changes are both gradual and continuous and punctuated by disaster; which played the larger role in affecting the prehistoric communities. This is why an international, collaborative research project is underway to uncover a breadth of information about the subarctic Islands of the Four Mountains. Starting this summer, Dixie West and Virginia Hatfield (Kansas University), Kirsten Nicolaysen (Whitman College) and Breanyn MacInnes (Central Washington University) will launch a three-year investigation with support from the National Science Foundation. The project includes excavating prehistoric village sites, studying volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, and determining climatic variations in the central Aleutians during the last 10,000 years.

“Our hypothesis is that the location and nature of the occupation sites [prehistoric villages] reflect the environment that the people were living in,” says Nicolaysen.

Fieldwork

To examine how the volcano might have affected these people, widely known as the Unangax^, the team selected village sites located at different distances and directions from Cleveland volcano. This summer’s field season will be devoted to excavating the sites and collecting a variety of stone, bone and volcanic ash samples. The village sites preserve critical scientific information about the ancient Unangax and the North Pacific region in which they lived.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Specifically, the team will include archaeologists, geologists, ecologists, and zoologists. They’ll extract radiocarbon, geological, paleoenvironmental, and cultural data to understand how prehistoric communities adapted to geological hazards, changing climate, and interacted with humans living both to the east and west.  These data include chemical signatures from past volcanic eruptions, sediments from ancient tsunamis, analyses of peat bog deposits to determine climate change, and identification of shells and animal bones to investigate changes in hunting and collecting patterns over time.

“We know that Cleveland was active during the last 9,000 years, when people were making a crucial leap across Samalga Pass,” says Nicolaysen. “We’ll be investigating how much ash is covering the occupational sites; did the people change their pattern of collecting resources during natural disasters; did they abandon sites?”

Lessons for modern adaptation

“We want to study sea level when historic people were settling the islands, as well as how they adapted to earthquakes, tsunamis, and eruptions,” says West. “This can provide information about coping skills in the face of geological and climatic perturbations useful to peoples living in the region today,” she says.

“We don’t know how often earthquakes and tsunamis occur there,” says MacInnes. “Yet if you do a hazard analysis, the Aleutian Islands are one of the most dangerous in terms of the ripple effect. People living on the Pacific Coast today should be very concerned about what’s happening there, and our research will fill in some of the gaps.”

She adds that by looking in low-lying regions next to the coast, she anticipates finding tsunami deposits that will indicate the natural disasters that happened over time and with what frequency and magnitude.

This, along with other information expected to emerge from the research, will help inform everything from future building to evaluation of existing infrastructure safety, says Nicolaysen.

Collaborators on the project include Pavel Izbekov of the University of Alaska, Arkady Savinetsky and Olga Krylovich of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mitsuru Okuno of Fukuoka University, Japan, Susan Crockford of Pacific Identifications, Victoria, Canada, John Power of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Zoya Johnson of the Museum of the Aleutians, Unalaska City, and the Aleut Corporation, Anchorage.  —Rachel Walker

Cairns Uncovered: Documentary Explores Ancient Tlingit Rock Formations

Researchers Elizabeth Howard, Mike Chodoronek and Ralph Hartley record their initial observations of this Alaskan alpine cairn. Photo: Peter Stegen

Researchers Elizabeth Howard, Mike Chodoronek and Ralph Hartley record their initial observations of this Alaskan alpine cairn. Photo: Peter Stegen

Parts of south Alaska’s inland, alpine landscape are dotted with mounds of artificially stacked rocks that are closely tied to Tlingit culture. These structures, known as rock cairns, are the focus of Cairns Uncovered, a soon-to-be-released documentary that explores Tlingit oral traditions surrounding the structures, as well as archaeological research into their origins and purpose.

Peter Stegen filming on a ridge in Alaska for his upcoming documentary, Cairns Uncovered. Photo: Peter Stegen

Peter Stegen filming on a ridge in Alaska for his upcoming documentary, Cairns Uncovered. Photo: Peter Stegen

Last summer, with the support of the National Science Foundation, Peter Stegen, a videographer and production associate at Nebraska’s Public Broadcasting Station affiliate NET, spent several weeks in Alaska filming interviews with Tlingit elders and capturing a multidisciplinary scientific team collecting data to explain the rock cairns.

“We really wanted to show the importance of these rock piles and what they are to Tlingit culture and their story. The Tlingit passed on their culture through stories and dance. Some of the stories about the beginning of their history have to do with these rock piles. And we wanted to show that,” Stegen said. “We also wanted to go up there and study and potentially date the cairns. So, it’s also a very science-based documentary.”

A Brief Introduction to Cairns in Tlingit Culture

Some Tlingit oral traditions speak of an ancient great flood that drove people from their coastal homes and into the mountains. According to the stories, as the flood waters rose the Tlingit took to small rafts and used the rock cairns to anchor and save themselves.

Some cairns also may have other significances, such as territorial boundaries, shamanic sites, territorial markers, wayfaring landmarks or signaling sites.

Exploring Culture through Film

The idea for the documentary took root when Michael Farrell, Stegen’s boss at NET, met a researcher with a pilot study called A Multidisciplinary Exploratory Study of Alpine Cairns, Baranof Island, Southeast Alaska, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and headed by William Hunt at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

From there Stegen connected with Tom Thornton, a cultural anthropologist and human geographer from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, who works on the Hunt project. Thorton was responsible for the oral historical and ethnographic documentation and contextualization of the rock cairn sites.

Stegen did most of the filming for the 15-minute documentary in Juneau, Angoon and Sitka while working with Thorton and other members of the research team to interview members of the Tlingit community.

“Tlingit oral history is rich and it is best captured by orators themselves, especially where clan elders, the keepers of these traditions, can be featured. But we also interviewed young people who were familiar with these sites, and some who had heard about them, and could describe them vividly, yet had not seen them personally,” Thorton said. “To get a perspective on this, it is always better to record the oral history from the living tradition bearers. Peter greatly facilitated this process, and I was grateful to have him along.”

Striking a Balance

In addition to documenting interviews with Tlingit elders, Stegen also filmed archaeological data collection at cairn sites on False Island. Situated near Barnoff Island in southern Alaska, False Island is home to more than 40 cairns, many of which had never been documented prior to this expedition.

“The challenge for me was balancing the culture and the science in the documentary,” Stegen explained. “There’s a great quote in the film from a Tlingit elder that I really like. He basically says that they [the cairns] are very spiritual, and scientists don’t want to believe in the spirituality, but it’s something that we strongly believe in.”

What’s Next?

Stegen, a first-time documentary maker, is currently working with other film professionals to put the final touches on Cairns Uncovered. He will unveil his work in early March 2014 to the Tlingit community, the researchers he worked with, the National Science Foundation and a broader viewing audience.

“I think the results [of the documentary] will enhance the project greatly and also be an important record and resource for the Tlingit themselves,” Thorton said. “One of our interviewees remarked on how knowing these stories of survival can be a source of strength for present and future generations.”

The Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau will feature the film, and Stegen is planning to build a website about the project, as well as host several screening events at the University of Nebraska later this spring.

“There are also talks of airing a shorter rendition of the film on a running NET program called ‘Nebraska Stories,’ which is an educational, character-based series on people in Nebraska.” Stegen said.

A Rewarding Experience

Stegen found that telling the story of the area’s rock cairns from both the cultural and scientific perspectives was an exciting challenge, one that had some unexpected and unforgettable rewards.

“These aren’t stories Tlingit elders just tell anyone, so it was a humbling experience for me to hear these stories that have been passed down for generation upon generation. They were proud to tell me these stories and took so much pride in their history and culture,” Stegen recounted. “It was a very rewarding thing to sit back and listen to these beautiful stories told straight from their mouths. To me, it was like poetry.” —Alicia Clarke

Reconstructing ancient populations in Alaska

A team of archaeologists excavate a highly disturbed site at Port Clarence, AK. All photos: Shelby Anderson

A team of archaeologists excavate a highly disturbed site at Port Clarence, AK. All photos: Shelby Anderson

Shelby Anderson spends most summers in the Alaskan bush digging up clues about the peoples who lived there more than 1,000 years ago. Anderson’s work focuses on northwest Alaska’s hunter-gatherer societies that hunted whales, built permanent settlements, and formed trading partnerships and regional alliances with other groups.

We spoke with Anderson in 2010 as she was planning the last of her dissertation field work while at the University of Washington. An Assistant Professor at Portland State University since 2011, Anderson’s got a couple of new irons in the fire. We caught up with her again for a report on her current research.

Her most recent project expands across the Seward Peninsula area with a new site at Port Clarence, where, with support from the National Science Foundation, she is collaborating with the Bureau of Land Management.

The landscape looks desolate, but it was once home to thriving native populations. Anderson and her team are working to piece together an archaeological history of the area.

The landscape looks desolate, but it was once home to thriving native populations. Anderson and her team are working to piece together an archaeological history of the area.

Last July, Anderson’s team of 15 spent two weeks digging test pits. They found animal bones, some bone and antler tools, pottery, shell and metal fragments, glass, and even nails.

“The site was studied in the 1940’s by Helge Larsen and Charles Lucier, but no research has been done there since,” she says. “It’s a challenging place to work in that the site is threatened by subsistence digging where people dig up artifacts to keep or sell. In addition to subsistence digging, natural coastal processes are acting on the site, [as are] 50 years of Coast Guard occupation near the site, and close to 2,000 years of people living in the area. The soil is really churned up. It makes it tough for us to establish a meaningful site chronology.”

But Anderson is not one to shy away from a challenge.

She and her team are relying on a number of techniques to unearth and understand what occurred at Port Clarence.

Geomorphic analyses by geoarchaeologist Owen Mason will reconstruct changes in the landscape. Radiocarbon dating of bones will yield the ages of the animals. More—the bones will be sorted and identified at the species level. This will help the team understand what people ate while living at Port Clarence and the time of year they spent at the site. Tools, like harpoon points, represent technology for a certain time period and will better establish a Port Clarence timeline.

Ceramic sherds offer relevant clues to the past. However, their excavation and reconfiguration requires extensive patience.

Ceramic sherds offer relevant clues to the past. However, their excavation and reconfiguration requires extensive patience.

Anderson also aims to find out about past social interaction and exchange networks by analyzing ceramic fragments.

“There is evidence of past ceramic exchange in northwest Alaska and this can tell us something about the way the people interacted across this region and how these interactions changed over time in relationship to both cultural and environmental dynamics,” Anderson wrote in a recent email. “Northern pottery is something of a technological feat. It may not appear as elaborate or ‘beautiful’ (a very subjective and non-scientific term!) as pottery from other times and places, but it represents an amazing ability to manipulate raw materials and the environment.”

Making pottery, she says, helped people adapt to their environment in terms of cooking and storing foods. Finding the pottery sherds and piecing them together requires extreme patience, she says.

“Often, a large number of ceramic samples are found within houses that were occupied semi-permanently,” she says. “But in general one can only make an educated guess about where exactly to excavate and then go from there.  It is part of the fun of archaeology, although it means you don’t always collect exactly the type [or] quantity of data you want.”

Following excavation, Anderson sends samples to the University of Missouri Archaeometry Laboratory for chemical analysis. She also studies the mineralogical composition of the sherds, which helps her link a sample to a general location of production. Anderson is now working with a colleague at Washington State University, Shannon Tushingham, to analyze food residues absorbed into the ceramics. This will yield information about what people were cooking and eating in ceramic pots.

Like following a trail of breadcrumbs, understanding where a ceramic pot originated is a first step in understanding Alaska’s early trade routes as well as which people had access to the raw materials necessary for ceramic construction. Geographic patterns of human settlement and interaction will provide more information about regional cultural identity as well as changes in subsistence, economics, coastal environment, and climate.

“I would say that it is pretty clear that pottery technology was adopted from the other side of the Bering Strait sometime between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago, although we don’t really know why this happened and why at this time. So, there are similarities (in technology and decoration, and change in these attributes) between the pottery on both sides of the strait and across the North American arctic and subarctic.”

Looking forward, Anderson says she would love to collaborate with Russian, Japanese and other researchers to better understand the ceramic traditions that came before the pottery we know from the North American Arctic.

And she’ll likely get her chance – we hope to see her working in the Arctic for years to come.

“Until recently, very little archaeological research in the north used ceramic data to answer questions about social interaction and human behavior in general.  This is an amazing period of maritime adaptation and people becoming more established in coastal communities!”  —Marcy Davis

The following organizations and communities are supporting Anderson’s current research at Port Clarence:

National Science Foundation, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs – Anchorage

Division of Polar Programs joins Facebook!

Exciting news! NSF-funded researchers at Woogaani ye (Aron Crowell, Smithsonian Institution, PI). Disenchantment Bay, 2013. Photo by Emily Silber using camera self-timer. — in Yakutat, AK

Welcome to Facebook!  Researchers at Disenchantment Bay, Ak (Aron Crowell, Smithsonian Institution, PI). Photo: Emily Silber

Follow Arctic and Antarctic research news through the new Facebook page of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs. The recently launched page carries stunning pictures and updates on the U.S. polar programs, north and south. Here’s where you’ll find:

We’ll be checking in with the page regularly and encourage our readers to do so as well (and if you like it, please don’t hesitate to “Like” it).

Greenland in The Atlantic: a stunning photo essay

A full moon, over an iceberg from the Jakobshavn Glacier, on July 23, 2013 near Ilulissat. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A full moon, over an iceberg from the Jakobshavn Glacier, on July 23, 2013 near Ilulissat. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A picture often is worth more than 1,000 words. Take the Atlantic’s recent photo essay, “Greenland: A Global Warming Laboratory.”

We were pleased to help with the photojournalist Joe Raedle’s (Getty Images) logistics while on the ice sheet, and we heartily support spreading the word of the research going on in Greenland.

We support many scientists and other researchers affiliated with the National Science Foundation and other organizations who study the impact of a changing climate on glaciers, sea levels, human, animal, and plant populations, and more.

As the Atlantic says in the essay’s intro:

“Rapid warming at the summit of the Greenland ice sheet has caused year after year of record melting at the surface, raising concern, even as recent research indicates the ice sheet has endured warmer periods. The warmer temperatures that have had an effect on the glaciers in Greenland also have altered the ways in which the local populace farm, fish, hunt and even travel across land.”

This is a stunning piece of journalism. Check it out. Click here to go directly to the website.

Anthropologist Explores Socioeconomic Change in Far East Russia

Anthropologist Tobias Holzlehner interviews a man in Uelen Russia to understand how residents use borderlands as resources to drive socioeconomic change. All photos: Tobias Holzlehner

Anthropologist Tobias Holzlehner interviews a man in Uelen, Russia, to understand how residents use borderlands as resources to drive socioeconomic change. All photos: Tobias Holzlehner

Cities, towns and villages located near the dividing lines of nations are a complex web of people, politics, cultures, commodities and lives. This unique combination makes the borderlands of the Russian Far East a treasure trove of information for one anthropologist.

Tobias Holzlehner, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has a keen interest in studying how the people use borderlands as a resource to drive socioeconomic transformation in increasingly globalized economies.

One of his latest projects, Informal Networks and Space at the Margins of the Russian State, is focused on two borderland regions in eastern Russia. The National Science Foundation provides funding for this research.

“The study of borderlands is a topic that evolved maybe 15 or 20 years ago. It’s really closely connected to our attempt to understand an increasingly globalized world where the migration of people or flow of commodities is frequently associated with our borders,” Holzlehner said.

Chukotka and Primore: two different Russian borderlands

Much of Holzlehner’s research focuses on the Chukotka Autonomous Region and Pimorsky Krai, less formally known as Primore. Both regions were severely affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and experienced mass migrations as people left to seek work in larger Russian cities.

Chukotka is a more remote Arctic region in the far northeast corner of Russia. At a local level, many of the 50,000 people who inhabit this region are subsistence hunters and fishermen. Gold mining and oil exploration on the continental shelf also contribute to the national economy.

Primore, to the south, shares its western border with China and is home to roughly two million people. The region has a long maritime history and is still a major shipping port for eastern Russia.

Collapse of the Soviet Union gives rise to research opportunities

Holzlehner first began studying the people, economies and politics of the Russian Far East in 1996, after completing his master’s in anthropology at Germany’s University of Tübingen. His research coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Holzlehner spent three consecutive field seasons studying the people and the politics of archaeology in the 1990s. He began a doctorate program that led to hours of research in open-air markets in regions bordering China. There he observed inter-ethnic interactions and informal and unsanctioned trade in borderlands. He then did postdoctorate research in Chukotka studying the impacts of forced relocations following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“I really tried to combine my year-long exchanges in Chukotka and maritime Primore into one project,” he said. “The obvious thing was that both regions were in borderlands and so I proposed this project to the National Science Foundation doing a comparative study with a focus on how people use borderland regions through time as a resource.”

Breaking barriers

Residents working on a new cabin in Pinakul, a former village site in the Chukotka region.

Residents working on a new cabin in Pinakul, a former village site in the Chukotka region.

Collecting data on how people earn a living, move money across borders, and other sensitive subjects requires a great deal of trust between Holzlehner and the people he interviews.

He built this trust through years living and working in these two Russian borderlands. Workers and their families know and respect Holzlehner and are often eager to tell their stories.

“When I first did my field work [in the open air markets], it took me at least a month to make contacts. Day after day, I bought carrots from one of my favorite traders. He finally asked me why I bought all these carrots and we started talking,” Holzlehner recalled with a laugh. “It takes time for people to accept and trust you, especially when you’re working in these gray areas.”

Borderlands as a resource

Sportivnaya market in Vladivostok, a large city in Primorsky Krai, Russia.

Sportivnaya market in Vladivostok, a large city in Primorsky Krai, Russia.

During his two- or three-month trips to Chukotka and Primore, Holzlehner interviews subjects and records observations on how people use the regions as a resource.

For example, in Primore, small-scale cross-border traders regularly travel from Russia to China and import most of the commodities for large open-air markets. The shuttle trader system provides various possibilities for the participants who show skillful use of insider knowledge and personal relationships.

In Chukotka, extraordinary resilience, as well as novel strategies of coping with loss and industrial collapse, created new forms of communities, where the re-use and re-settlement of previously abandoned village sites play a paramount role.

Tangible data

Users can delve into Holzlehner’s data via Google Earth to get a better understanding of commodity flow patters and resident migration.

Users can delve into Holzlehner’s data via Google Earth to get a better understanding of commodity flow patters and resident migration.

Much like a journalist, Holzlehner starts an interview with a handful of questions and then lets the conversations flow naturally. He’s often surprised at how much information people are willing to share.To protect their privacy, the exact locations and identities of his interview subjects are often changed in published literature.

In addition to collecting interview data on people’s trades and livelihoods, Holzlehner snaps numerous pictures in an effort to help others visualize the flow of commodities and migrating people.

“On my web page, you can download these files and explore certain aspects of the borderlands in a very visual way,” he said. He is using Google Earth as a platform to serve geo-located images and data files to do this.

What’s next?

During his 2012 field season, the project’s inaugural year, Holzlehner spent three months in Primore collecting data. This summer, he’ll return to Chukotka from June to August.

“[With this project] I would like to bring more light in to the shadow of borderland economies because I think these areas have been really underestimated. There are complex and very well functioning mechanisms that regulate the unorthodox aspects of the economy.”

To learn more about Tobias Holzlehner and his research, visit: https://sites.google.com/a/alaska.edu/far-eastern-borderlands/. –Alicia Clarke

World War II history frozen in time in Greenland

Gordon Hamilton and his colleagues focused their efforts to locate a downed WWII plane in southeast Greenland. The landscape of Koge Bugt, Greenland, the study area, is pictured here. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

Gordon Hamilton and his colleagues focused their efforts to locate a downed WWII plane in southeast Greenland. The landscape of Koge Bugt, Greenland, the study area, is pictured here. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

The vast ice sheet of Greenland has long served as a teacher, time capsule, and research station for everything from early cultures to climate change to World War II history.

Yep, you read that right. World War II. As surprising as it may sound, there are a number of lost U.S. World War II planes encased in Greenland’s ice sheet.

University of Maine professor of glaciology Gordon Hamilton normally travels to Greenland to study the glaciers, their outflow patterns, how they interact with climate and how they may impact sea-level change in the future. But over the past several years, he’s joined a unique partnership to locate the wreckage of a plane and repatriate the remains of its lost service men.

This month Hamilton talks to Field Notes about how he’s bringing his knowledge of glaciers and their flow patterns to support efforts by the U.S. government to uncover plane wreckage in southeast Greenland.

Field Notes (FN): Where did the idea to search for lost World War II planes in Greenland come from?

Gordon Hamilton (GH): I became involved in 2008. I got a call from one of the various offices in Washington D.C. that go back through old records and try to repatriate as many of the remains as they can find. I guess most are in Southeast Asia, but one in particular, which was a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft, bubbled up to the top of the list.

FN: What types of plane were you looking for?

GH: It’s called a Grumman J2F4 Duck and it was an amphibious type of aircraft that would be able to land on water or regular runways. This particular aircraft crashed toward the end of the war [in 1942]. It was actually a rescue aircraft. Another aircraft had crash-landed on the ice sheet and everybody survived. So they sent in this Duck aircraft to pick the survivors up. In doing so, it probably became the first aircraft to successfully land and take-off from the ice sheet. It had picked up most of the survivors and had gone back for one more group. And as it was picking up that last group it crash-landed and everybody on board was killed.

A scientist conducts a radar survey from a helicopter in search of the downed Grumman J2F4 Duck buried in ice. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

A scientist conducts a radar survey from a helicopter in search of the downed Grumman J2F4 Duck buried in ice. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

FN: Why were U.S. pilots flying aircraft over Greenland during the war?

GH: There’s a lot of aircraft in Greenland. These aircraft didn’t have very long-range capabilities. They were manufactured in the Unites States and were flown across the U.S. to Labrador (Canada) where they would refuel. They would hop across the Labrador Sea to west Greenland and refuel there. Then they would fly across the ice sheet and, weather permitting, they would try and land in Iceland or Scotland and then fly down to wherever the battles were being fought on continental Europe.

The long journey involved lots of stops for fuel, but always the most challenging part was crossing the ice cap. You have to gain a lot of elevation—you have to go up to about 12,000 feet to clear the ice cap—and it’s very cold. You also have this flat, white feature on the surface, which to a lot of pilots looks like clouds—you can’t easily tell the horizon. So a lot of planes simply flew into the ice sheet without realizing it, and there are a lot of instances when the weather was bad.

FN: What parts of Greenland are included in the study area?

GH: It’s in southeast Greenland in a place called Koge Bugt.

FN: How did you search for the Duck and what types of technology were used?

GH: Well it started off super low tech. When the Coast Guard first got in touch with me they wanted to know basic things, like how much snow falls in that part of Greenland, would it bury the aircraft, and if I was given an approximate location of where the wreckage was last seen in the late 1940s, could I predict where it would be now based on my understanding of ice flow and so on. A lot of the early work was just done through interpretation of maps and satellite images.

The same group that contacted me also contacted the NASA IceBridge airborne survey team. They asked what part of Greenland they were flying over and if they would deviate slightly from their course and run their radars over the potential wreckage location. They did that a few times but nothing really showed up in the radar record to say, OK this is a big chunk of buried metal wreckage.

So there were a lot of these ad hoc investigations for a few years. But nothing really conclusively said, OK here’s the wreckage. This sort of thing went on for a while and then we said the one way to figure it out would be to go there and measure the flow speed and carry out a dense grid of radar survey lines. Then it would be very straightforward to say if the wreckage was here, after 60 years it would most likely be at this given location. We went up there for the survey last August.

FN: Was the Duck wreckage successfully located?

GH: We did find this one! We turned over the location to the U.S. Coast Guard. My understanding is that they are going to go back this summer and start excavating the wreckage and hopefully repatriate the remains.

FN: What other organizations took part in this effort?

The helicopter and hanging radar antenna cast a shadow on the icy study area below. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

The helicopter and hanging radar antenna cast a shadow on the icy study area below. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

GH: For the ground survey I managed to get some of my colleagues at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory involved. These people have done a lot of radar work in Antarctica, so I knew they had the expertise to pick out a buried, sub-surface target. [The project also included the Coast Guard and NASA IceBridge Project.]

Although this repatriation effort does not have a web site, you can learn more about World War II aircraft by visiting the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force’s World War II Gallery. For more information about Gordon Hamilton and his research, visit his University of Maine web page. –Alicia Clarke