By Macy Rae Kenworthy, Arctic Youth Ambassador
I never know what to say when people ask me about growing up in Kotzebue, Alaska. It’s one of those experiences that is hard to explain, but it helped shape who I am today.
Kotzebue was small-town-life, with a Native twist. I grew up running around with my brother and making mud pies, but I also had to learn to hang fish and make seal oil. It was a non-traditional childhood, but a pretty common one when it comes to rural Alaskan communities.
In many Alaska Native cultures, we have an incredible sense of community. Those of us raised with the Iñupiat Illitqusiat (traditional values) are taught to take care of each other and the importance of family (especially living in a town where almost everyone is your cousin in one way or another). I found that sense of community and family in Kotzebue, and then later at Mt. Edgecumbe High School.
I also never know what to say when people ask me about attending boarding school. I attended Mt. Edgecumbe for my entire high school career, and like growing up Iñupiaq, it’s a hard experience to explain to someone who hasn’t lived through it. There are so many challenges to overcome. I was challenged academically; I was pushed, stretched and squished until I found my identity outside of the classroom.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks was a bit of a different experience. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by open water. I was inland, and I became homesick, realizing how important my community is to me. I finally started paying close attention to how much my people were struggling, but also on how much they were thriving on the land and adapting to all the changes.
In Kotzebue, like many rural communities, we have issues with alcoholism and domestic violence, and young people are growing up and adjusting to the balance between the modern western world and our traditional way of life. We’re also struggling with being on the front lines of climate change.
With climate change, the seasons are shifting. Our spring season is longer, which means it takes longer for the ice to dissolve, but the period in which the ice is unsafe to travel on is longer. This impacts our seal hunting, which is a vital source of food for my community, especially with grocery costs so high. Our fall season is also much longer, and it's taking a longer time for winter to come.
Kotzebue finally got snow within the last couple of days. Before, everything used to be frozen by late September. Last year the fall seal hunting season started in November because it took that long for the ice to start freezing. Our caribou also came a lot later this year, fish migrations are changing, and ocean acidification is also a huge issue -- the ocean absorbs a large amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere impacting the pH of our oceans and ultimately, harming ocean life.
I participated in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program and got a month-long internship with the National Park Service in Fairbanks. I participated in an aerial Dall sheep survey, where I learned about these amazing animals and how North Slope communities rely on them for subsistence.
The following year, I was selected as one of 22 youth to share my experiences as an Arctic Youth Ambassador. Through this program, I’ve been able to do amazing things. I’ve met many politicians and decision-makers, I went to Maine to go sailing for four days on the Bowdoin, and I even ended up in Iceland where I got the opportunity to discuss the future of the Arctic.
Almost a year into the program, I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned more about my culture and my ancestors while searching for ways to help my people adapt to the changes brought on by a warming Earth. Our seasons are changing and our permafrost is melting. We are working to mend the generation gap and the language barrier. We are fighting for our way of life because we are a resilient people and we know we can bounce back.
In September, I became involved with the Qikiqtagruk Iñupiaq Youth Council. During my first meeting, I was elected vice president. Our goals as a group align with my personal goals of connecting young people to our traditions and values and providing support, as well as finding solutions to address the issues we face in Kotzebue.
Through all my experiences, away from home and right here in Fairbanks, I have learned where I truly belong: fighting for my people. Even after my time in the Arctic Youth program ends, I now know that I will always be an ambassador and advocate for my land, culture and people as long as I live.
The Arctic Youth Ambassadors program was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Alaska Region, U.S. Department of the Interior, and U.S. Department of State in partnership with nonprofit partner Alaska Geographic.