In the world of science, the clinical often obscures the personal. While white lab coats and sterile surroundings are often necessary for research, science should not occur in a vacuum where it is sealed off from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and culture. At the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) National Conference, science is indigenized: traditional knowledge and culture is woven through research methods and observations and participants are welcomed warmly as their whole selves. 

Wendy F. Smythe and Sonia Ibarra have been bringing students from Hydaburg to AISES for years, and this year, students from Kake as well. Wendy Smythe, Ph.D, is Haida from Hydaburg. Her Haida name is K’ah Skaahluwaa, from the Xáadas clan of Sdast’ aas (Fish egg house). She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the Departments of American Indian Studies and Earth & Environmental Science and has been bringing students to AISES for 11 years, and teaching students in Hydaburg for even longer. “Wendy is kind, goofy, lovable and has an incredible sense of humor, qualities that make her an excellent mentor for these students,” says Sonia. Wendy also founded the Geoscience Education Program in Hydaburg, which seeks to integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge and geoscience education. This year at the AISES Conference, she was awarded Professional of the Year for the excellent work she has done to educate students and to promote Indigenous ways of knowing. 

Sonia Ibarra is a Ph.D candidate completing her thesis on how expanding sea otter populations affect the harvest of customary and traditional (i.e subsistence) foods in SE Alaska. She is a mentor and scholar who is committed to decolonizing research by welcoming and working alongside community members to guide and conduct research that benefits tribal members’ homelands. Under Wendy’s guidance and support, she has helped bring students in the communities she works to AISES. At the conference this year, she was inducted as a  Sequoyah Fellow, sponsored by her longtime mentor Wendy Smythe. During the medaling ceremony two of her previous students, Joseph Hillaire and Sarah Peele, were nominated for a Sequoyah Fellowship. They will be honored with the award in 2020 at the next AISES conference. 

The AISES conference is a one-of-kind event focused on personal, educational, professional, and workforce development. Attendees include American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and First Nations high school and college students, educators, professionals, tribal nations and tribal enterprises, universities, corporations, and government agencies.  At AISES it is clear that by weaving Indigenous and Western sciences, we can make pathways for a better world. Organizations like NASA, Boeing, and the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources are regular presenters and recruiters, showcasing cutting-edge scientific research and internships opportunities that tackle many environmental issues. This year, there were 31 total sessions focused on STEM fields such as “NextGen STEM: Cultivating a Diverse STEM Workforce to Solve Global Challenges” and “Indigenous Perspectives in STEM: Exciting Careers in Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences”.  In addition to learning about the latest in scientific endeavors through an indigenous lens, students have access to a career fair, internship and scholarship opportunities, and many chances for networking and challenging themselves to get out of their comfort zone. 

What is unique about AISES is that in addition to providing excellent professional opportunities, they invest in the personal and the spiritual side of the students. “This conference tells you ‘This is exactly where you need to be. We accept you. We love you,’” says Sonia. Additionally, there are times designated each day for a “Heart to Heart with an Elder”, where participants can visit one-on-one with elders and receive love and guidance. During the Sequoyah fellow ceremony, elders say a prayer and sage the new fellows and welcome them into the AISES community.

The AISES conference is life-changing, affirming, and an extremely impactful event for the students of Kake and Hydaburg to attend. See their photos and read their reflections below: 

All of the conference attendees from Hydaburg and Kake gather with family members and mentors. From left to right: Lauren Smythe, Taylor Natkong, Danny Green, Maria Ibarra, Aliyah Trout, Shannon Gregory, Sarah Peele, Sonia Ibarra, Courtney James, Joseph Hillare, Taylor Vantrese, Debbie James

One memory that touched my heart was the opening of this conference that reminded me of home.  It felt like it was one of my elders talking and sharing their traditions with our community. That’s when I knew I was with good people that care so much about our Native values.” – Taylor Vantrese (Kake), Kake City School District, high school senior

On the left, Wendy poses with Sonia, whom she nominated for the Sequoyah Fellowship. On the right Judy Brown Clarke, Wendy’s mentor, poses with Lauren Smythe (Wendy’s daughter) whom she nominated to receive the Sequoyah Fellowship.

The Sequoyah breakfast was really touching for me. To see Sonia be recognized for everything she has done was so heartwarming for me. She is paving the way for students like me and is such a great role model. Then for Wendy to nominate me to be a Seqouyah fellow made me realize I need to be more serious about being more of a role model and leader to others. On the trip to Fairbanks from Milwaukee I got to connect with a younger student from Hydaburg. I tried to ‘channel my inner Sonia’ when she opened up to me. I did not think that she thought of me as someone to get advice from, but when she did, I tried to give her the best advice I could.” – Sarah Peele (Hydaburg), University of Fairbanks, undergraduate junior.

Sonia being inducted into the Sequoyah fellowship. She is being spiritually cleansed using sage by an AISES elders while Wendy stands behind her.

Sonia Ibarra received the Sequoyah Award at AISES this year because she has invested a lot of time and effort so that she could mentor and support students as they go through their lives.  As well as help cultivate an environment so that they can grow to be exceptional leaders that will shape tomorrow’s world. However, her time and attention isn’t just limited to students, she is in contact with her fellow AISES members and other people that are within her life. – Taylor Vantrese (Kake)

Joseph with a picture of the description of the Sequoyah Fellowship application. Sequoyah was a Cherokee man who developed the Cherokee alphabet, bringing literacy to the Cherokee people within a year.

The AISES conference is valuable to me because I’ve learned to network with excellent people across Indian Country. I’ve learned about different climate issues in other communities via oral/poster presentations. I can be myself around other students, mentors, professionals, etc. while attending this conference. I was surprised at the Sequoyah Fellowship Breakfast [this is where he was nominated to be a Sequoyah Fellow for his leadership in the LGBTQ+ community].” – Joseph Hillaire (Hydaburg), Northwest Indian College, undergraduate junior

Sarah Peele, Aliyah Trout, Wendy Smythe, Taylor Natkong, and Joseph Hillaire at the AISES Traditional Native Powwow, the final event of the conference

Being Indigenous to me means that we have a responsibility to prepare for the future generations by upholding the values of past generations. I often say that I cannot wait to be an old woman because I cannot wait to be respected for being a holder of knowledge, a mentor to the next generation, and someone who gave everything to help her community and be the best I can be. I think the biggest challenge for Indigenous people today is invisibility. Even though people see us alive, they see us as the stereotypes they learned from others or media. Disrupting that narrative is the first step in seeing us as who we are. That starts with inserting ourselves into spaces where we are underrepresented like academia and government. At AISES, I found that there are plenty of people that are either Indigenous or non-Indigenous who want to help students get to those positions and disrupt the negative narratives.” – Sarah Peele (Hydaburg)

All the Alaskans at the 2019 AISES National Conference!

What makes this conference so valuable is that it’s a nationwide Native conference. I get to learn and see people just like me who are Indigenous, learn about their traditions on their land, reservation, or Tribe.” – Courtney James (Kake), Kake City School District, high school senior

Wendy (far left) receiving the Professional of the Year Award. Reprinted by permission from AISES © 2019.

“[Wendy is receiving the Professional of The Year award and Sonia is receiving the Sequoyah Fellowship] because they are doing great work. It’s amazing because it proves you can do something worthwhile no matter where you are from.” – Taylor Natkong (Hydaburg), Hydaburg City School District, high school senior

Lauren Smythe, Sarah Peele, and Wendy Smyth pose in Wendy’s signature power stance, seen here on the cover of AISES’s “Winds of Change” magazine.

“[The world needs more indigenous voices in science and engineering] because we need to save our Native lands and what comes without our land is our food, medicine, and tools. Till this day, Native people still hunt and use it for medicine to heal and provide food to use.  I think it’s very important to save all that so that our culture does not die out.” – Courtney James (Kake)

Dr. Wendy Smythe on the Fall 2019 cover of “Winds of Change”, AISES’s print and digital magazine. Reprinted by permission from AISES © 2019.

Dr. Wendy Smythe received the Professional of the Year award because of the tremendous results of the Geoscience Program that was brought to Hydaburg over a decade ago. The results of this groundbreaking program has caused the number of students who are college bound and interested in the field of STEM, which was at 19% in 2007 to about 65% today.  Therefore, her work has made a pathway for students to go into STEM and delegate on behalf of their tribes.” – Taylor Vantrease (Kake)

Sarah presenting her poster on integrating Haida Ecological Knowledge with Western Science

I was surprised that I found almost exactly what I was looking for: people who can help me protect our knowledge of traditional medicinal plants. I was also surprised that representatives from ANSEP [Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program] asked me to join their program and offered me a full ride to graduate school.” – Sarah Peele (Hydaburg) 

Sonia giving a presentation on “Facilitating greater equity and representation in the sciences: Sea otter impacts on customary and traditional foods”.

In today’s times as new innovations and discoveries are being made on the daily, it is necessary for all voices to be heard, especially the voices of Indigenous peoples across the world. Not only were Natives known as the OG scientists, their opinions often go unrecognized. Today, the STEM world has many influences on various aspects of all lives despite the variation of race, gender expression, and sexuality; all are affected by the advances of STEM (Ach áwe).  Therefore, even more now than before, I believe that the voices of ALL people should be heard and recognized so that the best interest of the people can be a higher priority than something influential like money.” – Taylor Vantrease (Kake)

Sonia (far right) receiving a second place award for her exceptional research presentation.

Sonia is receiving this outstanding award for weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge with western science while simultaneously supporting Alaska Natives in STEM. K’ah Skaahluwaa, (Wendy Smythe) was awarded the 2019 AISES National Conference Professional of the Year for providing extensive and important work for Native American/Alaska Native communities in terms of policing funds to support Indigenous students studying STEM disciplines. The fact that Haida and Mexican women acquired prestigious awards this year at AISES raises representation that is important for the next generation of Native American/Alaska Native students as we all are maintaining balance between Western academia for our own ways of viewing STEM in the natural world.” – Joseph Hillaire (Hydaburg)