Tribal Community Partners with Researchers to Monitor Food and Climate
Kake (pronounced “cake”) is a rural coastal village in Southeast Alaska, rich in cultural history and tradition. The region around the village has been inhabited by the Tlingit people for thousands of years. Today, among Kake’s population of around 600 people, more than 70 percent1 are Tlingit Alaska Native, and Tlingit traditions form the foundation of the community. Residents of Kake still depend on subsistence harvesting of local animals and plants to provide food for their families.
As the signs of climate change become increasingly obvious in Alaska, the tribe and community members in Kake are concerned about how climate change and pollution might impact the streams and ocean waters they depend on for food. The community is concerned with food security—ensuring that everyone has physical and economic access to sufficient food to live a healthy life—and food sovereignty—the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods.
The Kake Climate Partnership
In January 2020, local leadership in Kake formed a collaborative research partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, called the Kake Climate Partnership. All members agreed to work together with the goal of benefitting Kake, and to uphold the values described in a shared Declaration of Principles and Expectations document, created on the recommendation of the First People’s Conservation Council. Members of the Kake Climate Partnership include the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (a NOAA Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments, or RISA, team), the Organized Village of Kake (a federally recognized tribe), Kake Tribal Corporation, and the City of Kake.
Field research and shared benefits
To characterize the impacts of climate change and pollution on traditional foods across the area, Kake’s local leaders worked with their research partners to design and implement two local monitoring projects. In the first—ocean monitoring—members of the project team collect ocean water and shellfish tissue samples while documenting climate indicators. Over time, these data will document how climate and pollutants are affecting the quality of local ocean waters as habitat for traditional food species. The second project—freshwater monitoring—will document the knowledge of Indigenous elders in Kake about local salmon streams. Participants in this project will also gather and analyze fish tissue samples while documenting climate indicators to monitor stream health over time.
Obvious benefits of starting these projects include creating jobs and adding new capacities to the community’s workforce. Of the ten paid positions on the field sampling team, nine were held by Kake residents during 2020. The plan also supported collaboration with a local youth training program, Training Alaskan Rural Youth & Students, or TRAYLS, training five high school students to collect and document samples of ocean water.
An unexpected opportunity
During the summer of 2020, after the onset of the global pandemic, the number of cruise ships traveling through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage dropped to nearly zero.
The huge decrease in ship traffic gave the Kake Climate Partnership an opportunity to study their ocean ecosystem without the impacts of these large vessels. The measurements from ocean monitoring collected during lockdown now serve as a baseline against which future data will be compared. As ship traffic increases in the future, continued sampling and analysis will help the Kake Climte Partnership track impacts from climate change and identify any increase in pollutants.
Perfecting the protocols
The Kake Climate Partnership team developed specific protocols to ensure a consistent sampling process for ocean monitoring in 2020. Independent reviewers from the Environmental Protection Agency approved the Partnership’s Quality Assurance Protocol Plan for sampling water and mussels.
- To measure water quality, the water samples were analyzed for temperature, salinity, pH, ammonia (as ammonia nitrogen), total kjeldahl nitrogen, nitrate+nitrite, fecal coliform, dissolved metals, and mercury.
- To check if mussels had ingested pollutants from the water, mussel tissue samples were analyzed for saxitoxin, mercury, and total metals.
Between June and October of 2020, team members collected samples of ocean water and mussel tissue from four different locations near Kake. After sampling routines were established, a regional radio station produced a news story featuring one of the local team members involved in collecting samples for the ocean monitoring program.
Collecting, managing, and using data
In 2021, the partnership hired four high school students as research assistants to tribal staff. The students also interact with a university faculty member who serves as a mentor. Stream monitoring is scheduled to begin during the summer of 2021 and the the partnership intends to expand its ocean monitoring efforts through 2021 and 2022. Both projects have been made possible by support from a Tribal Resilience grant awarded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
All data collected by the Kake Climate Parnership are being archived by the Organized Village of Kake. As part of her senior thesis, a local college student produced a summary report of all the monitoring data from 2020. Partners at the Organized Village of Kake tribe are using results from the field research as input on the subsistence foods and food security portion of their climate adaptation plan. Partners at the Kake Tribal Corporation are using the results for business and workforce development planning, and partners at the City of Kake are using the results for future resource management at the municipality.
Working together, partners in Kake are conducting high-quality climate and food security research, upholding the principles of data sovereignty for the tribe, and building community capacity to make decisions about their future.
How the partnership works
In the Kake Climate Partnership, the project topics and design come from the local leadership in Kake. All partners work to co-produce data and knowledge to increase local adaptive capacity to climate change. Specifically, the partnership works in the Kake Community Use Area (see map above) focusing on traditional food security and food and data sovereignty. Education and workforce development are the top priorities. This approach is based on a model of co-production of knowledge, or CPK. See Understanding the Arctic Through A Co-Production of Knowledge for additional examples, brochures, and webinars based on this approach.
The Kake Climate Partnership is supported through funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance Program; the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch project 1018914; the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (a Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, award NA16OAR4310162); a Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Resilience Grant held by the Organized Village of Kake; the International Arctic Research Center; the TRAYLS/YCC program (funded through the United States Forest Service, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and SEALASKA); the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; and donations of time and supplies from Guy Archibald, Clay Good, the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and others. The Kake Climate Parnership is also supported through in-kind donations of staff time from the Organized Village of Kake, Kake Tribal Corporation, and the City of Kake. We would also like to thank the 2020/2021 ocean and stream monitoring sampling teams for the time and hard work.
Note: The University of Alaska is an AA/EO employer ane edcuation institution and prohibits illegal discrimination against any individual; www.alaska.edu/nondiscrimination
- 1. U.S. Census Bureau. 2018a. American community survey 5-year estimates: Census reporter profile page for Kake, AK. http://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US0236770-kake-ak/
By Dr. Elizabeth Figus, a postdoctoral researcher supervised by Dr. Sarah Trainor at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Kake Tidal Flats, by Elizabeth Figus. Used with permission