Alaska Native Science Commission

In spring 1993, Anchorage, Alaska, hosted a conference on contamination of the Arctic, which opened with a keynote address by United States Senator (now Governor) Frank Murkowski, entitled "The Environmental Legacy of the Cold War." In the days that followed, delegates listened to accounts of Arctic lands and peoples used as testing ground for Cold War-related scientific research. A number of revelations about research activities undertaken during the 1950s that only became public knowledge in the early 1990s comprised the discussions. These governmental activities included the deliberate seeding of the Snowbank and Ogotoruk catchments (adjacent to the Inupiat Eskimo village of Point Hope) with Nevada test site radioactive material, as well as US Air Force experiments conducted in the 1950s on 121 residents of Inupiat Inuit and Athapaskan Indian villages. Natives were given radioactive iodine (without their knowledge) to study the effects on the thyroid gland. The discovery of hitherto secretive and exploitative activities marked a turning point in the use of Arctic ecosystems and peoples for scientific research, especially to the indigenous people represented at the meeting. The conference resulted in the belief and commitment that the native community needed to become involved in scientific research in the Arctic, to become fully engaged with the way in which science investigated their environment and lives, and ensure that research was conducted in Alaska in a form that had the full knowledge, cooperation, understanding, and support of local communities.

As a result, a position statement was drafted, and the Alaskan Federation of Natives (AFN) passed a unanimous resolution at their annual convention in 1993, pledging support for the creation of the Alaskan Native Science Commission. The following year, a series of workshops brought together community leaders and elders with Arctic scientists to develop recommendations for the structure and function of the fledgling Science Commission. Participants obtained funds from the National Science Foundation to establish this vital link between the scientific world and the Alaskan native community.

The mission of the Alaskan Native Science Commission is to "endorse and support scientific research that enhances and perpetuates Alaska native cultures, and ensures the protection of indigenous cultures and intellectual property." Moreover, the Commission agreed at an inaugural meeting in 1994 that it would foster a number of specific objectives. These included incorporation of local and traditional knowledge into research and science; all too often, researchers conducted scientific investigations without recourse to existing native knowledge. The Commission decided that it ought to influence the process by which research priorities were established, since a number of key scientific questions relating to Alaskan native people (such as environmental health and diseases relevant to Alaskan native peoples) had not received priority in the greater scientific community. Alaskan natives needed to be involved at all levels of scientific research. The latter necessitated promotion of science among all native peoples, especially within youth populations who could benefit from scientific education and related opportunities. The Commission also agreed that feedback mechanisms would enable the dissemination of scientific results and involve communities in discussions related to local research, again in a manner that ensured scientific endeavor assimilate with local community life. Particular emphasis was placed upon the creation of an archive of native knowledge and scientific research results to safeguard such information for future generations. Finally, it was determined that Alaskan native peoples share in the economic benefits derived from their intellectual property.

The Alaska Native Science Commission invited nominations from the native community to serve on a board of commissioners to oversee the work of the Commission, comprising seven native Alaskans and ex-officio members representing the scientific community in the state. The Commission presently has an executive director (as of 2003, Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat native born and raised in Nome, Alaska) and a secretariat to coordinate activities. The Commission established "Principles for the Conduct of Research in the Arctic" as well as active working groups and task forces to tackle key issues (such as contaminants in the human food chain). The Commission organized a second highly successful summit with the theme of "Building Bridges with Traditional Knowledge" in May/June 2001. The number of scientific institutions and agencies listing the Commission as an integral partner to major research projects remains testament to the enormous success of the organization since its inception.

Tony Fox

See also Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Further Reading

Alaska Native Science Commission: Partnerships in Science and

Research website: Alaska Native Science Commission: Partnerships in Science and Research website:

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