Academics, Communities Benefit from Developing Relationships
Academics who study marginalized communities often wonder whether their research will actually benefit the communities they study. It wasn’t until I traveled to Alaska as a doctoral student 14 years ago that I was forced to confront this question as an academic myself.
“Promise us that you are not going to disappear,” Iñupiaq elder Martha Aiken said to me on my first day in the Arctic. As a Geography doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, I had flown into Utqiaġvik, AK — formerly Barrow — the northernmost town of the U.S., to introduce myself and my research proposal to the Iñupiaq community. I did not hesitate to introduce myself and my research agenda with vim and vigor.
“So, you want to interview us,” responded Martha. “Yes, I would love to,” I said. My eager statement was followed by a long silence. I was getting nervous as I started to feel I had said something inappropriate.
Martha calmly explained that she had seen many tanik —white —scholars coming to Utqiaġvik, soliciting help from the villagers without any compensation and never returning to the community to report back or reciprocate the villagers’ hospitality.
This kind of exploitive practice has long been associated with academic scholarships and colonialism. It was this nature of “extractive industries” of academia that Martha feared. Too many times, she witnessed indigenous knowledge and experiences conveniently truncated and plugged into the market economy after being detached from the appropriate cultural contexts. Very rarely was a plan for benefiting the local community part of this enterprise.
“It takes a long time to earn your place in this village,” Martha said. “You will get a degree after talking with us and writing a paper using our stories. What will we get from you in return?” Then she smiled and asked me to swear that I would commit myself to cultivating a long–term relationship with her and her community. I agreed.
Many years later, I am still in the process of earning my place in the community, and the process of relationship–building has opened many doors to me that would have otherwise stayed closed.
When I completed my Ph.D. a few years later, Martha congratulated me and said, “Now it’s your time to pay us back.” She emphasized that the best way for me to repay the community is to teach my students about indigenous cultures to educate future generations of scholars about the importance of social justice and indigenous sensibilities.
Through my fieldwork, Utqiaġvik became my adopted home, and the villagers generously incorporated me into their social and cultural fabric through the web of extended kinship and hospitality. I feel fortunate to be part of this community on many different levels. I recently introduced three Oberlin students — College seniors Liv Roak and Kiley Petersen and double–degree fifth–year Paulus van Horne — to the community last November. The purpose of this fieldwork was to initiate a conversation with community members and establish a long–term collaborative relationship to facilitate the sharing of indigenous experiences with climate change, human rights and cultural resilience.
During a week of fieldwork, Liv, Paulus and Kiley immersed themselves into the Iñupiat whaling community to learn about the local and international politics of subsistence whaling, collaboration between scientists and traditional–knowledge experts, the role of music and the power of the tribal language in contemporary indigenous identity and Iñupiat cultural resilience through their use of communication technology like Facebook. In so doing, they have taken the first step toward building relationships with the people who they will work with for many years to come. The outcomes of their projects will be given to the Iñupiat Heritage Center and local school libraries.
We are looking forward to our continued collaboration with the people of Utqiaġvik. It is our wish that our effort to build relationships with members of the indigenous community can become relevant for contemporary social research based on collaboration in indigenous communities. And finally, we will be a proud keeper of my promise to Martha —we shall never disappear.
Liv Roak, Paulus van Horne and Managing Editor Kiley Petersen contributed to this op-ed.