Last spring, an intrepid team of fifth graders at Gladys Jung Elementary School explored the impact that climate change could have on their communities. With a little help from KYUK, a group of gumshoe reporters from Erin Arno’s fifth grade class interviewed an Elder and a Western-trained scientist about the changes they had observed.
Their questions were to the point. Students wanted to know how climate change was effecting local wildlife, especially the salmon. They grilled Janessa Esquible, a fisheries biologist who works for ONC.
Some fish species are struggling to adapt to shifts in climate, Esquible explained. If stream temperatures become too warm, for instance, salmon and other fish are at risk of experiencing thermal stress. "That could actually cause death" in some cases, Esquible told the students. "Because they get extremely stressed.”
Students also wanted to know what it’s like to be a Western-trained scientist working in Bethel. Esquible is part First Nations Anishnaabe and used to work for her reservation. She pointed out that while Western science and traditional knowledge approach the world differently, they also compliment each other.
“Science is extremely compartmentalized," Esquible said. "When you get older and older and go to school, you’re really going to get pushed down a more narrow and narrow path so you can be a specialist at something. Whereas Elders don’t do that. They have vast knowledge on everything, really.”
Bethel fifth graders saw that vast knowledge at work when they talked with Elder Peter Atchak. “The ptarmigan don’t even stay here anymore, because there’s no snow," he explained, when students asked how climate change would impact the region's animals. "They follow the edge of that snow melting. When that snow melts, there’s those berries from last fall that got covered up and they still have juice in them. So they are able to eat berries that were buried all winter long underneath that snow."
Now, Atchak says, the snow is melting more quickly. "It's not necessarily that there’s no more ptarmigan around here," he assured students. "They’re following the edge of that snow."
The fish are effected by warming temperatures, too, Atchak said. "In the summertime when the sun is hot, when you’re drifting with fish net," he explained, "you'll notice when you’re pulling it up that your fish are way on the bottom of our fish net. [That's] because they’re staying away from the heat.“
Some of the students' questions for Esquible and Atchak were personal. When the young reporters asked Esquible how old she was, she told them that she was 27, and that people can become scientists at any age.
"Some people feel that they're scientists in high school," she said. "I feel you guys are scientists. I’m sure you observe changes that happen around you all the time, so you guys could be scientists too. Are any of you guys interested?" Several students said that they were.
The young reporters also asked Atchak how he became an Elder. "What a wonderful question!" he said, laughing. "You know, age comes. Everybody is headed the same way, and if you stay alive, pay attention to whatever you’re doing, and not get into an accident, then yes, you too will become an Elder one day.
"So that’s how I became an Elder," he said wryly. "I didn’t get hit by a truck."
Atchak added that he enjoys being an Elder. "I gain knowledge," he told the students. "I learn something every day, even at my age.”
With the help of KYUK's production staff, Erin Arno's fifth grade class edited their interviews with Atchak and Esquible into two, 13-minute radio programs. You can hear the students’ full interview with Esquible on Coffee at KYUK on August 30, and their full interview with Atchak on Coffee at KYUK on August 31.