APU Health & Fitness Original

COVID-19’s Impacts on Indigenous Communities in Alaska

The Native village of Perryville, Alaska. There are currently about 110 permanent residents of the village. Image courtesy of Anthony Caole.

By Dr. Kristin Drexler, Faculty Member, School of STEM, and Anthony Caole, Doctoral Student, Global Security

This article is part 2 of a series on an field research study on COVID-19’s impacts on indigenous communities in the Americas. The purpose of this multi-phase study, called “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experience of Indigenous Groups in the Americas,” is to examine the complex impacts from the coronavirus pandemic and to give voice to the lived experiences of indigenous groups in the Americas. Using interviews, the study aims to understand COVID-19’s impacts on Native people’s health, jobs, the environment, government policies and other aspects of Indigenous communities.

In April, I conducted a study with Dr. Michelle Watts and graduate student Bridget Kimsey during field research in Taos, New Mexico. During June, further research for this study on COVID-19’s impacts was performed in Perryville, Alaska by doctoral student Anthony Caole.

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Doctoral student Anthony Caole. Image courtesy of Three Star Government Solutions.

Future studies are planned for Alaska, Central America and other locations. These studies will involve additional researchers, such as instructor Dr. Casey Skvorc and students Tara Shultz, Alicia Symons, and Julia Morrow. Tara is an undergraduate in the School of STEM; Alicia has a master’s degree in environmental policy; and Julia is pursuing her master’s in environmental management and policy.

Anthony Caole is taking classes for a doctorate in global security at the University. He is currently working on his practicum with the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association in Anchorage. 

Anthony completed his bachelor’s in rural development from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. After that, he attained a master’s degree in international and intercultural management from the School for International Training.

In addition, Anthony has earned a graduate certificate in emergency management from the University. His focus for that certificate was disaster resilience in indigenous and international communities. Now, he continues his work toward his doctorate in global security – one of our first doctoral degree earners!

Conducting Research on COVID-19’s Impacts in Perryville, Alaska

Last month, Anthony traveled to the remote Native village of Perryville in southern Alaska to conduct interviews for the study on COVID-19’s impacts. Perryville is located about 275 miles southwest of Kodiak and 350 miles southwest of Anchorage. Earlier this month, I had a chance to interview Anthony about his experience conducting field research in Perryville.

Approaching the Native village of Perryville, a fishing community on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula. Image courtesy of Anthony Caole.

Dr. Drexler: Anthony, thank you so much for being one of our stellar field research assistants!  Can you describe your role in this project? Why are you interested in being part of this research on COVID-19’s impacts? 

Anthony: From an academic perspective and as a student in our doctoral global security program, participation in the study is providing me with hands-on experience in actual research. At a professional level, I am a federal contractor operating the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s [SAMHSA’s] national Tribal Training and Technical Assistance Center.

This organization assists tribes in the United States with addressing the suicide epidemic and mental health crisis in Native communities. I am very interested in learning more about how tribes and Native communities in the U.S. have both responded to and are recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are indications that the increased social distancing and lockdowns have heightened feelings of isolation and exacerbated the mental health challenges faced by youth in the Native communities we serve. The pandemic also resulted in an unprecedented and historic infusion of federal and other resources into Indian country. I think that this study may provide some insights into how this infusion of resources has not only created its own challenges, but it’s provided some unique opportunities to strengthen the resilience of Native communities during the recovery as well. 

Dr. Drexler: Tell us about your recent research expedition to the remote community of Perryville. 

Anthony: In May, I traveled to Perryville to participate in the annual shareholder meetings for Oceanside Corporation, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act village corporation. Perryville is a Suqpiaq (Aluutiiq) Alaska Native village of about 110 year-round residents. It was founded in 1912 after Captain Perry transported the survivors of the Novarupta volcanic eruption from the Katmai area of the Alaska Peninsula southward to present-day Perryville.

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Minutes after landing, the airport apron adjacent to this gravel runway in Perryville was the scene of family reunions even before COVID-19. Travel to the village is extremely costly, but flights are returning more frequently during the recovery. Image courtesy of Anthony Caole.

It was a great opportunity to hear first-hand from local officials and community leaders what efforts they have been taking to both respond to COVID-19’s impacts and their efforts to recover. As I previously mentioned, the pandemic resulted in some pretty unprecedented levels of federal financial assistance being directly infused into the villages of Alaska. Some of those communities, like Perryville, are using those funds to not only provide direct financial assistance to tribal and community members, but also to address their economic infrastructure, broadband access, and other issues.

To some degree, many Native communities – particularly the villages in Alaska that lie off the road system – were already extremely isolated prior to the pandemic. This isolation didn’t make them immune to the disease, but it helped the communities mitigate COVID-19’s impacts in some ways, particularly where they were able to reduce traffic into their communities or exert greater social control when encouraging tribal members to self-isolate.

At the same time, the lack of sanitation infrastructure and often overcrowded housing conditions made tribal members more vulnerable to the disease once community transmission took hold. The lack of high-speed Internet in villages like Perryville also impacted the ability of the schools to effectively deliver education when classrooms were closed. As a fishing community, it has been exciting to learn how Perryville has used a small portion of their recovery dollars towards enhancing tribal member access to the fishery. 

Dr. Drexler: What do you expect to learn from this research project?

Anthony: I hope we will gain greater insight into how Native communities practice resiliency. In the case of Perryville, the people are by their very nature the epitome of resilience. Their ancestors survived Russian and American conquests, previous pandemics, environmental disasters such as the cataclysmic 1912 Novarupta volcanic eruption that buried their ancestral villages, or the Exxon Valdez oil spill that impacted their coastal beaches.

One of the countless photos of Perryville tribal members that adorn the walls of the Katmai Community Center in Perryville. Many of the children and teenagers from this photo are either elders today or have passed on. Image courtesy of Anthony Caole.

It will be interesting to find out the answers to questions such as: What does that resilience look like today, in the face of a modern pandemic? What systems or structures serve the people well, and what needs improving or enhancing to strengthen community resilience? 

Dr. Drexler: Tell us more about why this study us so important to do. Why is this COVID-19 research important to you?

Anthony: Native communities, especially Native communities in Alaska, are oftentimes not considered or consulted in the development of public policy. Many federal programs and initiatives are often designed as one-size-fits-all; they don’t take into account the realities, cultures, and way of life of Native communities.

Resources provided during the COVID-19 pandemic provided a surprising level of flexibility, while rules and regulations were also developed along the way. It is important to get the voice of the most marginalized communities to the government, and it will be interesting to learn whether the federal government’s approach this time helped or hindered COVID-19 response and recovery. 

Dr. Drexler: Thank you, Anthony! We so appreciate you and your participation in this research into COVID-19’s impacts!

Public Health Degrees and Science Student Organizations at the University

The School of Health Sciences also offers various health-related degrees, including an online bachelor’s degree in public health and online master’s degrees in public health and nursing. There are also several science organizations at the University, including:

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.

Dr. Drexler earned the Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award for the School of STEM (2020) and the Dr. Wallace E. Boston Leadership Award (2021). She 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 presently an investigator for the research study “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experience of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.”

Anthony Caole is a doctoral student in Global Security at the University. He serves as President/CEO for Three Star Enterprises, LLC, an Alaska Native Corporation, and sister subsidiary Three Star Government Solutions, LLC, both owned by Oceanside Corporation.

Mr. Caole is a former Tribal Administrator (Native Village of Kwinhagak), and former Senior Management Consultant at Northern Management, a Division of CE2 Engineers, Inc., where he spearheaded millions of dollars in rural infrastructure development projects for remote communities in Alaska.

From 2011 until 2019, Mr. Caole served as Regional Director (Contractor) for the Alaska Region T/TA Center, a Resource of the Administration for Native Americans. He was responsible for overseeing statewide training and technical assistance in support of the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) competitive grant programs, which focus on social and economic development as well as language preservation and maintenance in Native communities both in Alaska and nationally.

In 2021, his company was awarded a major national contract in a teaming partnership with Tribal Tech LLC to provide national training and technical assistance to SAMHSA Native Connections Grantees, as well as operate SAMHSA’s national Tribal Training and Technical Assistance Center. Mr. Caole also previously led Three Star’s expansion into the U.S. Department of Defense contractor arena, securing major staffing contracts inside and outside the continental U.S. with the United States Air Force, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy, and the Coast Guard.

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