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Kongiganak roots fuel graduating Columbia senior Charitie Ropati

Uquviar Charitie Ropati in her 2024 Columbia University graduation portrait.
Charitie Ropati
Uquviar Charitie Ropati in her 2024 Columbia University graduation portrait.

In less than a month, Uquviar Charitie Ropati will be the first Alaska Native woman to graduate from Columbia University’s Civil Engineering program in the department’s more than 155-year history. She says her deep roots in the coastal village of Kongiganak support her through the frustrating work of pushing for change on a global stage.

Wearing a pinstripe blazer and white fur earrings, 22-year-old Uquviar Charitie Ropati looked out over the circular meeting room at the United Nations in New York City. She shared the story of her home village, Kongiganak.

My great-grandfather and other men moved our homes by wrapping ropes around them. And then using one small tractor, a snowmachine and dog sleds, they brought the village 11 miles northwest. Our families moved because they knew that the ground was sinking due to the thawing permafrost. They knew and they thought ahead. We did this without the help of the federal government, state organizations and outside aid. Time and time again, we have seen Indigenous peoples, not only in Alaska, but throughout the world, make hard decisions and sacrifices, relying solely on themselves to ensure the survival of the next generation, amidst a changing climate.

Ropati’s keynote address at the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) earlier this year was a call to action on climate change.

“It was scary having to tell world leaders that like, ‘You're failing, you're failing because of your inaction. How many times do we have to tell you that?’” Ropati said in an interview after the speech. “Like, so many youth have spoken in spaces like that. They're not listening. They're not opening their ears.”

Ropati said it’s terrifying to consider how daily life could change for future generations as permafrost degrades, or what life could look like without salmon and the cultural practices around salmon.

To address the climate crisis, she said she hopes world leaders will pursue a “just and immediate” transition away from the fossil fuel industry. She also hopes they’ll hold space for youth, and that they’ll speak directly to people who are on the frontlines of climate change.

“Speak to those people, go to our communities, visit them to see what's happening,” Ropati said. “It's not something that you could just read in a book, it's not just something that you read online, these are very real things that we are facing on a daily basis.”

Ropati had the opportunity to speak at the U.N. Economic and Social Council because of a fellowship called Future Rising, through the nonprofit Girl Rising, which is focused on gender equity and climate justice. She’s also an Arctic Youth Ambassador, recipient of the World Wildlife Fund U.S. Conservation Leadership Award, and was recently recognized by Bering Sea Elders Group as a Young Provider & Culture Bearer.

Ropati said it’s demoralizing to speak to the realities she and her community face – melting permafrost, dwindling salmon runs – knowing that her community didn’t play a role in causing that crisis, and seeing the lack of action from global leaders. The U.N. has sustainable development goals that it aims to achieve by 2030. But six years out from the deadline, the organization is nowhere near meeting those goals.

Ropati said it was clear to her how she should use her allotted eight minutes to speak.

“I knew that our global leaders were failing us. And my idea was like, ‘How do I tell them this?’ And I think Native people are the best storytellers. That's how we pass down our stories from one generation to the next, but that's also how we ensure the survival of our people and of our communities, amidst everything – amidst colonialism, amidst the climate crisis,” she said. “So I knew that I wanted to start off with a story. And that was a story of how Kongiganak came to be. And that's something I wanted to share with our world leaders.”

Ropati, who is Yup’ik and Samoan, said she drew strength from her parents being there with her at the U.N.

“This isn't just my story. This is the story of my mother. This is the story of my grandmother. This is the story of our community and how our community came to be and in part how I came to be,” Ropati said. “For my great-grandfather to make that hard decision to relocate, which is a huge issue in our region – for me, I saw the parallels. So many of our kids, of our youth in our generation are forced to make these hard decisions to move away from home, to get the education that we need to ensure their survival, survival of our community in this world, to ensure that we have that visibility.”

At her core, Ropati has faith in her community’s ability to adapt and overcome.

“What I know and understand is that we'll always be there for each other, and we'll help each other,” Ropati said. “I mean, that's what happened in 1967, when we had to move. So we'll continue adapting to the climate crisis. And we'll continue to survive.”

‘Our people have always been scientists and engineers’

Later this month, Ropati will graduate from the civil engineering program of New York-based Columbia University. She said it’s a mixed bag of emotions. She’s proud and excited to be graduating from such a prestigious, Ivy League institution, but said it’s also disappointing to be the first Alaska Native woman in her position.

“This isn't just a win for me, but it's a win for my family and my community,” she said. “Because – not to be corny – but I think as Native women we should create a reality where we no longer have to say we're the first to do that, especially at institutions like this.”

Ropati said growing up in Anchorage and back in the village, back in Kong – shorthand for Kongiganak – shaped her worldview and how she navigates the world.

Ropati credits her mom with inspiring her own drive to pursue higher education.

“She was one of the first to go to college. She's the youngest in her family. And I always tell her story first, because I am holding on because of her,” Ropati said, “And I feel like this also is something that so many girls can relate to as well.”

Ropati also credits her participation in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) with sparking her interest in pursuing a formal science education.

“I didn't think I was good at science. I didn't think I was good at engineering. But then I fell in love with it because I met an Indigenous permafrost engineer, who showed us what the collapse of infrastructure looks like when there is permafrost degradation,” Ropati said. “Learning those concepts at such a young age made me realize that these ideas were things that we've always held like it's literally in our blood, our ability to adapt to those types of things.”

She said that moment made her want to be a scientist, be an engineer, and to emphasize and integrate the thousands of years of traditional knowledge that she and her community hold.

“Our people have always been scientists and engineers,” Ropati said. “[...] I love thinking about and studying permafrost. And as we all know, the thawing of permafrost is devastating a lot of our community. So those are the stories I carry with me everywhere.”

‘It will be worth it’

Looking to life after graduation, Ropati wants to work on water infrastructure in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities.

“I believe every single person, especially Native people, deserve access to clean water and good sanitation infrastructure,” Ropati said. “I mean, it's 2024 now, and many of the communities that are underserved are in my region.”

But as she nears the end of her time at university, Ropati said she feels some frustration.

“Amidst everything that we're seeing, it's us as Native people that are forced to make these hard decisions – decisions that we have to make starting at the age of 13, 14, starting this advocacy work, these are things that we don't choose. I didn't choose this,” Ropati said. “These are things that, you know, I'm thankful, but at the same time, for kids, and for our youth to have to grapple with these things is extremely hard.”

Ropati’s story is a reminder that Indigenous people bear the brunt of climate change – a reality they didn’t create.

“I'm thankful for the institution that I go to, but why is it up to us to make those decisions to move thousands of miles away from home, to get the education we need to ensure survival for our communities?” she asked. “Why is it up to my people, like my great-grandfather, to make the hard decision of moving, because he didn't want our homes to collapse?”

Ropati said that if her community was safe from climate change, she doesn’t know if she’d choose to attend an elite university like Columbia.

“This won't be my reality forever,” she said. “I'm going to return home. And all of those years of pursuing higher education, it will be worth it.”

Although her university education and advocacy work are huge pillars of her life, Ropati said those pursuits come at a cost.

“My New Year's resolution is to learn how to light a seal oil lamp, because I feel like the time that I've sacrificed for my education, I've had to sacrifice my time that I could have dedicated to learning traditional practices like lighting a seal oil lamp,” she said. “I really want to learn how to light a seal oil lamp.”

“So,” Ropati said, “I'm really excited [to graduate]. And I'm excited just to return home and be home, because there's nothing like home.”

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.