By | EDDa Veelik ’16

In the Alaskan summer, the sun never sets. That’s just one of the challenges involved in spending the summer 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle. But Rachel Swanson ’15 (Lexington, Ky.), who worked last summer as an environmental education and media intern in the town of Kotzebue, was happy to rise to those challenges.

Kotzebue is a small town located adjacent to the Western Arctic National Parklands. Planes are supposed to fly in supplies weekly, but don’t always make it. Groceries are expensive and hard to get. Three quarters of the population is made up of indigenous people who have historically been sustenance driven; recent waves of modernization have left them struggling to keep up.

Swanson, an anthropology major, applied skills she’d learned from classes such as Ethnographic Interviewing during her internship. She applied for the competitive position through the Student Conservation Association.

Each week she taught a one-hour environmental education class to local people. She also led workshops and programs about art, movies, and the national parks. A workshop she organized about traditional carving methods, in which she brought in a master wood carver, was especially interesting, she says.

Swanson also led two weeklong excursion camps—a cultural and survival camp for 8-year-olds and a tundra hiking camp for 10- to 15-year-olds. “I really liked the kids—they were different from most. These kids had knowledge others don’t have. Like one day they told me that it was a good week to get seagull eggs, and how to find them. They’re so in tune with their surroundings and know so much about their area.”

Her ethnographic interviewing skills came in handy when she conducted a series of oral interviews with an indigenous 82-year-old man named James, a master carver who makes kayaks, canoes, and dogsleds. The video she produced from these interviews will be on the National Parks website.

One of the highlights of Swanson’s summer was making friends with local pilots. On the weekends she would tag along with them as they shuttled passengers and cargo around Alaska. She even got to help fly a plane once.

On the day she was scheduled to leave, a 6-year-old girl student met her at the airport and grabbed her leg in an attempt to stop her from boarding the plane. “That’s when I felt like I had truly become a part of the community,” she says.

November 1 2013

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