Wonderful. Thank you so much.
Good afternoon, everybody. Qam agalaa. My name is Dr. Liza Mack. Qagaasakung for inviting me to speak with you today.
First I want to thank you for my being able to address this body about this very important topic of engaging indigenous communities when it comes to large energy projects.
As I begin, I would like to introduce myself and tell you a little bit about my background and the organization that I represent.
I am the executive director of the Aleut International Association. Aleut International is one of the six permanent participants on the Arctic Council. We represent the Aleut people, who live both in Russia and in Alaska, at the Arctic Council and all of its working groups and expert groups, and with many of their projects.
I was born and raised in the Aleutians. We grew up subsisting and living off the land. Our people are Unangan, or Aleut in English. We often say that when the tide is out, the table is set. We harvest. We preserve. We eat many things out of the tide pools and off the reefs. There's an abundance of seafood that actually sustains our communities. We are a coastal people. We've done this for thousands of generations. Some of the things that we harvest and eat include salmon—all five species—crab, halibut, cod and octopus; marine mammals such seals, whales and sea lions; and terrestrial animals such as caribou. We also eat different migratory birds as well as birds that live in and around our communities.
I left my hometown of King Cove when I was 15 to go to boarding school. This was the start of my education outside of our community. My educational background is in anthropology, cultural anthropology. I have both my bachelor's and my master's degrees in anthropology. Also, I just finished my doctorate in indigenous studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Most of the research that I did was with Aleut leaders and fishermen from around the state of Alaska. For my master's research, I analyzed the State of Alaska Board of Fisheries testimonies, and I also interviewed testifiers to see whether or not they felt their testimonies contributed to the regulations that were passed. In Alaska, the management of our resources, and especially fisheries, is sometimes very contentious, and the system is often daunting for people who are unfamiliar with the process.
Part of the reason this is important to the conversation today is that these types of decision-making processes are things that people in local communities around the Arctic need to be involved in as we move forward with some of these projects and some of these regulatory issues.
In my dissertation research, I was working with communities and also with Aleut leaders, and I helped to develop, implement and analyze a survey that had to do with natural resource management laws in Alaska. A lot of these laws actually affect local people in very unique ways. There are a lot of different boundaries, a lot of different guidelines, that people need to be aware of and cognizant of. There are also our cultural practices, the things we've done within our communities for generations. Understanding how these two worlds work together is very important.
Throughout the process of all of my background and research, and all of the things that I've been doing not only in this capacity but also as a researcher and as somebody who is involved with cultural revitalization and language within my community, there have been several issues that I think we could benefit from by mentioning them here.
We're starting to talk about energy projects and how to engage with indigenous communities. As I said, even though I am from the community, and that's where I did my research, there were certainly things that came up that I really hadn't put a lot of thought into until I was in the midst of that.
I think you have some of my talking points in front of you. Really, I tend to just talk and not write things down. I hope the little points here are things you guys can see.
A big one was early engagement. Speaking to a community when a project is still an idea is very important. There are different issues about whether or not the community is even interested in projects.
Before I went back to school to pursue my bachelor's, my master's and my doctoral degrees, I worked as the economic development coordinator for the tribal council in my community. Part of that work led me to surveying people to see what kinds of things we were interested in pursuing as a community.
Some of the obvious things that came up were tourism and various things of that nature, but many people in my community weren't actually interested in those. They didn't want a lot of people coming into the community. Just having those kinds of conversations at the onset of some projects is really important and can't be stressed enough.
Also, there's the question whether or not various projects are appropriate. There are people who have different belief systems, and so understanding what is important at the community level is something that I think should also be looked at.
Also, with early engagement we could look at whether some people might be able to help with instruction about whether a plan is actually a good one. Looking at things from maps and other ways in which information is presented when you're starting the planning isn't necessarily the same as accessing the knowledge that is held within a community. A thing isn't going to be accessible just because the project is on, for instance, a flatter part of the topography; you may not know that this is where there are bears or where there's a swamp. Those kinds of things are really important for planning some bigger projects and planning for projects within a community.
The next point concerns communication. To us it would mean speaking with the community members and also being available to answer questions in more than a “check the box” kind of way. It's not just one-way communication, but also communicating and being accessible to not only describe what you see is going to happen but being available for those conversations is concerned. People put a lot of stock in being heard.
This speaks to the next point I noted regarding cultural expectations and whether we're looking at community participation and the resources that are around these projects and the way those resources are going to be affected. I alluded to the way people look at some energy projects. An elder once had told me that he didn't believe that all of the wind farms were actually important. He thought they were disrupting not only the flow of the way the birds were migrating, but other sorts of things like that.
It's just a matter of taking a minute to understand the potential effects. As indigenous people, in our communities we look at things from a very holistic perspective. Everything we do affects all other parts of our communities and cultures. The cultural expectation of what is important to the community is, I think, really important to think about. So is understanding of the goals of the project. Are the goals of the project to increase capacity? Are they to generate income? Are they to reduce the way we are dependent on fossil fuels? Having those goals set out with the community is certainly very important.
When we talk about the goals of a project and how they're going to affect people at the community level and how important it is to engage indigenous communities, one really big thing that we have to think about is that there's a very limited capacity to engage in our communities both financially and in terms of time.
Even in my own research, being a very small project, some of the things that came up were that there are very small populations. Within these small populations, there's an even smaller subset of people who are kind of champions in the communities and who are trusted to fulfill leadership roles. People trust them to speak for them at different levels.
It's making sure that is looked at and also supported. By supported, I mean that it's important to give people funding so that they have both the time and the capacity to provide very thoughtful and meaningful engagement with the project.
Finally, the last note I had was that the timelines with these sorts of projects are culturally sensitive. It's understanding, for instance, that our region in the summertime is very busy. That's usually when people go out and do research, and they start building projects and different things. That's also when people are fishing, when the salmon are running. That's when these other things are happening.
As kind of an anecdote, when I was doing my dissertation research in my communities, I had planned to do the surveying in the summer. However, people were just not home. I would call, and people would say they were out berry picking and didn't expect to be home until the next day, or whenever. Unless I was willing to go and pick berries with them.... I mean, it may seem like you're not working or you're not doing what you have set out to do, but those kinds of things are [Technical difficulty—Editor]
I guess I would just say that a lot of these small—