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Subsistence mapping project brings expert to Arctic

March 2nd, 2012 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

A year into their subsistence-mapping project, staff at the Northwest Arctic Borough continue to check items off the to-do list.

This month that includes hosting industry expert and author Terry Tobias at a public talk next Thursday at 7 p.m. at the National Park Service Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue.

"What Terry Tobias has done over the past 30 years of his career is to set the standard for what good subsistence mapping should look like," said Zach Stevenson, subsistence mapping coordinator for the NWAB.

The borough began this project last year, in an effort to create a comprehensive guide to the regions subsistence land and how it's used. Modern scientific techniques, buoyed with indigenous knowledge of subsistence grounds, make up the complex undertaking of subsistence mapping.

A Vancouver resident, Tobias is making his first trip to the Arctic this week, though his expertise in the industry is widespread. He has conducted extensive studies of indigenous peoples and land use in both Canada and Australia.

Tobias's visit and conversation with the northwest public are meant to provide an example of what a successful project looks like, Stevenson said. The fact that such success relies on significant community involvement makes public conversations even more important, he said.

"The intention is to demonstrate how other indigenous communities have used mapping as a tool to tell their own story," Stevenson said. "And through that process demonstrate leadership and sovereignty over their destiny. Over their lands, and over their future."

The finished product is essentially a tool that can be used by rural populations when they go to the table to discuss land and resource development. While groups in Alaska, including the NWAB, are just beginning this journey, Tobias has explored the scope of it.

Tobias is the author of Living Proof: The Essential Data Collection Guide for Indigenous Use-and-Occupancy Map Surveys. If it seems like a mouthful, that's because it is. This is no small undertaking when considering the geographical scope of the region and the sheer amount of knowledge mappers are out to collect.

The borough is approximately the size of Indiana, covering 350,000 square miles of land and 4,700 of water.

The field work for the four-year endeavor in the northwest starts this spring, as borough staff bring on an advisory board of 49 people from the seven villages included in the study — Noatak, Kivalina, Buckland, Deering, Selawik, Noorvik and Kotzebue.

These were chosen because they are the region's coastal communities, Stevenson said, a reflection of the fact that a big piece of funding came from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program.

"Over the year ahead we'll be gathering information with our advisors," Stevenson said. "They are the experts, the borough views ourselves as the technicians. Our role is to document their knowledge, and create maps that address their needs."

Roughly 80 percent of the NWAB's residents still live a subsistence lifestyle, relying on natural resources. A comprehensive map of historical and current uses aims to give this population scientifically backed evidence of vital subsistence areas and the role they play in providing for today's rural Alaska families.

The Thursday evening lecture is in conjunction with the Regional Mapping Workshop hosted by the Northwest Arctic Borough Thursday and Friday that includes discussion of many vital aspects of the subsistence mapping project. For more information call Zach Stevenson at 907 442 2500, ex. 110.


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