APU Health & Fitness Online Learning Original

A COVID-19 Pandemic Study Continues in Southeast Alaska

By Dr. Kristin Drexler, Faculty Member, School of STEM with
Dr. Casey Skvorc and Dr. Michelle Watts, Faculty Member and Assistant Department Chair, School of Security and Global Studies and Tara Shultz, Undergraduate Student, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

This article continues a series on the University-funded study, “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experiences of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.” For this research, the team of Dr. Michelle Watts, Dr. Kristin Drexler, Dr. Casey Skvorc and research assistant Tara Shultz traveled to the Metlakatla Indian Community on Annette Island in Southeast Alaska in early August.

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Arriving at beautiful Metlakatla. Left to right: Tara, Dr. Watts, Dr. Skvorc and Dr. Drexler. Image courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

Through interviews with Metlakatla community members, the study uses the Community Capitals Framework to examine the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts to the community.  A research focus of Drexler’s, the Community Capitals Framework will help the team understand impacts from the pandemic “by using interviews to examine community perceptions on health, cultural practices, livelihoods, the environment, governance, education, and so on. These aspects all connect to civil society, collective action, socio-ecological system changes, and resilience during the pandemic.”

This year, the study took place in the Metlakatla Indian Community in Alaska and in Taos, New Mexico. The team plans to continue the study for an additional year or more.

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Dr. Watts at Yellow Hill, overlooking Metlakatla Indian Community. Image courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

Dr. Michelle Watts is the Principal Investigator on this study. Dr. Watts notes, “A benefit of the study is to give voice to the lived experiences of Indigenous communities and how they have managed a global pandemic in their respective communities.”

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Examples of rock art created by Walter Clark, Sr., a member of the Metlakatla Indian Community, on Yellow Hill Trail, Metlakatla. Images courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

As stated on the Metlakatla Indian Community’s website, Metlakatla (population 1,460) is the only Indian Reserve in the state of Alaska. Located on Annette Island about 20 miles south of Ketchikan, this community can be accessed by seaplane, boat or ferry. The economy of Metlakatla is based on fishing, seafood processing, tourism and forest products.

pandemic research team Ketchikan
Dr. Watts, Dr. Skvorc and Dr. Drexler during a brief stop at Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska. Image courtesy of Michelle Watts.

The research team arrived at Metlakatla by ferry from Ketchikan in time to observe and participate in the community’s biggest celebration of the year – Metlakatla Founders’ Day on August 7. The community has not had a full  celebration since 2019 due to the pandemic. Joining the community leaders attending the festivities, including Mayor Albert Smith, was the Governor of Alaska, Michael J. Dunleavy.  

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Mayor Albert Smith with his daughter Uniquea and granddaughter Willow, celebrating the 135th Metlakatla Founders’ Day. Image courtesy of Kristin Drexler.
Founder’s Day celebration in Metlakatla. Image courtesy of Michelle Watts.

The experience of attending Founder’s Day also gave the researchers an opportunity to meet and talk with several members of the community and to begin building trust.

A Conversation with the Team about the Metlakatla Research Experience

Dr. Drexler spent time to reflect on the research experience with the rest of the research team. During a beautiful, clear sunset at the historic cemetery site – a spiritually uplifting moment of reflection and gratitude to the people and place of Metlakatla – the researchers talked about what they’d learned. Common words repeated during this reflection included “community, experience, pandemic, people, generations, joy, beautiful, lenses, public health, spirituality, solidify and care.”

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Images of Metlakatla Cemetery. Images courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

Dr. Drexler: Dr. Watts, how did the study go for you in Metlakatla?

Dr. Watts: For me, this was an awesome opportunity to return after conducting research here in 2017 and with such an incredible team of people. When I was here before, I was really looking at just talking to a small group of people involved in tribal government and Internet infrastructure, all of whom were very helpful. 

This time, we were looking to talk to a lot more people and asked a lot of them. We interrupted people at work and on the day after Founders’ Day, a day off for most.

The people of Metlakatla were really generous with their time, sharing what the pandemic has been like for them. They also helped us identify people we should talk to. This trip was a more meaningful than I could have ever hoped for in a lot of ways.

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Dr. Watts and Tara interview elders at Metlakatla Senior Center. Image courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

Dr. Drexler: Tara, what was this experience like for you?

Tara: I didn’t know what to expect. Coming here, people have been so kind and so open and willing to share. It’s been amazing for me. It’s really added some depth and additional lenses with which to see the world. To be able to see the world through their eyes and their experiences has been amazing.

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Dr. Kristin Drexler interviewing Gatgyeda “Tia” Haayk, S’ndooyntgm Galts’ap Community Garden Champion and School Board President.  Image courtesy of Michelle Watts.

Dr. Drexler: Dr. Skvorc, how about for you?

Dr. Skvorc: I recently read an essay with this observation, “Geography is destiny.” The geography of Metlakatla Island is the bedrock of the Metlakatla Indian Community, a deeply spiritual people who came to the island by canoe about 135 years ago.

In the past five days, we’ve listened how many leaders and elders in the current community came together in response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. That group included magistrates, the chief of police, the mayor, the tribal council, artists, businesspeople, school administrators, educators and even the casino director.

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Dr. Casey Skvorc interviewing Taw Lindsey, Superintendent of Annette Island School District in Metlakatla. Image courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

For our final night in Metlakatla, we’re at this cemetery. Some markers are individualized with traditional totems, seashells, and memorabilia reflecting intertwined stories of Metlakatla’s people and their community. The generosity of spirit of the people we’ve met this week has greatly enriched our collective listening and research experiences. 

The view from Sand Dollar Beach, Metlakatla. Images courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

Dr. Drexler: Dr. Watts, how is this research important?

Dr. Watts: I hope that this research will be helpful in giving people a chance to talk about their experience and to think about what worked for them during this time. It’s also a chance to discuss what could have been done differently for the next pandemic strain, the next virus that comes along.

People talked about the importance of family and closer ties and communications, universal themes. It was important to capture what this pandemic meant to a lot of people, for better or for worse.

Dr. Drexler: Tara, as a student, how was this research experience for you?

Tara: It’s been amazing. It will take me months, probably, to process all that I’ve learned from you guys, from the people here, just from the experience. It’s really helped solidify where my passions lie.

And all of the conversations that I had with each of you gave me a lot of insight in that too. I am so appreciative, it’s…I can’t even come up with words.

Panorama of Annette Island (Metlakatla Indian Community, left edge) from the top of Yellow Hill. Image courtesy of Kristin Drexler.

About the Authors

Dr. Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member in the Space Studies and Earth Sciences Department. She teaches geography, environmental science, earth system history, conservation of natural resources and earth and planetary sustainability for the School of STEM. She earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at New Mexico State University by researching socioecological systems, sustainable agroecology and community education.

Dr. Drexler earned her Master of Arts in international affairs with an emphasis in natural resources management from Ohio University. She earned the Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award for the School of STEM (2020) and the Dr. Wallace E. Boston Leadership Award (2021). Dr. Drexler has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize regarding agroforestry, conservation, and sustainable agriculture. Dr. Drexler serves as a faculty advisor for the University’s wSTEM and AWIS chapters. She is a co-investigator for the research study “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experience of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.”

Dr. Casey Skvorc is a full-time faculty member, teaching in the strategic intelligence and global security doctoral programs for the School of Security and Global Studies. He has a Ph.D. from the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and a J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where he served as an Editor of the American Indian Law Review. 

Dr. Skvorc’s teaching fields are law and ethics in the American Intelligence Community, the psychology of global actors, global security, public health, professional practice and practicum courses. He is finalizing a new graduate course in medical intelligence. His most recent publications, with co-author Dr. Nicole K. Drumhiller, are studies of “doctators” – Francois Duvalier, President-for-Life of Haiti, Hastings Banda, Prime Minister and President of Malawi, and Bashar al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic. All were physicians who became political dictators. 

Outside of his academic practice, Dr. Skvorc is the Behavioral Health Screening Official for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Select Agent and Biosurety Programs. He is a co-investigator for the research study “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experience of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.”

Dr. Michelle Watts is the Assistant Department Chair for the School of Security and Global Studies, where she also teaches in the doctoral program. She has a degree in International Studies from American University, a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Arizona and a Ph.D. in International Development from the University of Southern Mississippi. 

Dr. Watts has collaborated with colleagues on nine research grants encompassing a wide range of topics. Her work includes “Bomberos, Maestros y Psicólogos: Guatemalan Civil Society Response to the Volcano of Fire Disaster,”“Making Sovereignty Mean Something: Native Nations and Creative Adaptation,” “Drugs, Thugs, and the Diablos Rojos: Perils and Progress in Panama,” “Seguridad del Canal de Panamá: Una Década Después de la Salida de Estados Unidos” (Security of the Panama Canal: One Decade after U.S. Departure), and “Game of Norms: Panama, the International Community, and Indigenous Rights.” She is the principal investigator for the research study “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experience of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.”

Tara Shultz is an undergraduate student at American Public University’s School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. She completed an undergraduate fish and wildlife management certificate at APU in 2021. Tara is currently working toward her bachelor of philosophy with a concentration in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). She is a member of the Women in STEM, National Society of Collegiate Scholars, The Society for Collegiate Leadership and Achievement, and the American Anthropological Association. 

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