A view of Metlakatla, Alaska. Image courtesy of Dr. Michelle Watts.
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 is part 3 in a series on field research on pandemic impact on Indigenous communities in the Americas. The people we interview will describe COVID-19’s impacts to their health, income, the environment, governance, cultural celebrations and other elements in their lives.
The study will continue in early August. The University-funded research team of Dr. Michelle Watts, Dr. Kristin Drexler and Dr. Casey Skvorc will travel to the Metlakatla Indian Community on Annette Island in southeast Alaska, accompanied by field research assistant and student Tara Shultz.
The team will first travel to Ketchikan and take a ferry to Annette Island. We will have a chance to observe and participate in the community’s biggest annual celebration – Metlakatla Founders’ Day. Due to the pandemic, the Metlakatla community has not had this cultural celebration since 2019.
Dr. Casey Skvorc adds, “This annual festival celebrates culture, music, art, storytelling, food, and other elements of life. I am eager to listen and learn about a culture for which I have great respect and interest.” The next article of this research journey will highlight our research while we are on location in Metlakatla, Alaska.
Dr. Michelle Watts and research assistant Mark Colwell conducted research in Metlakatla in 2017. At the time, they examined tribal access to information technology.
Related link: COVID-19 Research: Studying Its Impacts on Native Communities (part 1 in this series)
A Brief History of Metlakatla, Alaska
The Metlakatla Indian Community (MIC) was founded in 1887 in response to religious and cultural repression in British Columbia. Approximately 800 Tsimshians accompanied Anglican missionary William Duncan to begin a new community on Annette Island, many of them reaching the island by canoe.
Duncan’s leadership was punctuated by a mixture of autocracy and egalitarianism, as he attempted to dismantle the intricate social structure of the Tsimshians and replace it with industries to occupy the Indigenous people. The islanders ultimately forged their own path, developing a thriving economy with an effective tribal council.
The MIC website notes, “The mission of the Metlakatla Indian Community is to improve the lives of our members, and preserve our heritage and culture, through effective self-governance, a commitment to self-sufficiency, and the exercise and strengthening of our tribal sovereignty; we encourage progress while honoring our ancestors and protecting our land and water for future generations; we promote sustainability by utilizing and respecting our natural resources, developing economic and social opportunities for our members, and implementing efficient and effective systems of governance to enhance our members’ safety, health, and welfare.”
The Metlakatla Reserve is located on Annette Island, 20 miles south of Ketchikan, with access available via seaplane, boat, or ferry. Its economy is focused on fishing and seafood processing, tourism, and forest products. The current population is approximately 1,454 people with about 600 housing units. Metlakatla has a marine boundary with control of the waters up to 300 feet off the coast of Annette Island.
The Metlakatla Tribal Constitution and by-laws of the Metlakatla Indian Community were approved by the Secretary of Interior in 1944 under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act. Authority was granted to the Metlakatla tribe to prescribe rules and regulations governing the use of Annette Island Reserve. Metlakatla is the only Indigenous reserve located in Alaska, having retained tribal sovereignty by voluntarily opting out of theAlaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1980.
COVID-19’s Health and Legal Impacts on Indigenous Communities
Part of the study will examine the health and legal factors related to how Indigenous communities have coped with COVID-19. Tara and Dr. Skvorc are concentrating their research efforts on law and public health as they discussed in a recent interview.
Dr. Drexler: Tara and Dr. Skvorc, thank you for being a part of this study! Tara, starting with you: you are an undergraduate student at the University – can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I currently work for the Public Defender Agency in Kodiak, Alaska, land of the Alutiiq people. We assist low-income clients with legal support through the legal issues they are facing.
I enjoy studying the interconnectedness of science and culture. This is why I chose my major with APU in the philosophy program with a concentration in science, technology, engineering and math [STEM], and I felt it important to add a fish and wildlife management certificate to my studies. In my distant past, I worked in the healthcare and insurance industry.
Dr. Drexler: And you live in Kodiak, Alaska. Does that provide you with a unique perspective for this pandemic study?
Tara: Living in an Alaskan community and my work provides me with a unique lens through which to see the study. The daily interactions I have, provide me with a unique understanding of the history and priorities of the community and allow me to see the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on lives firsthand.
Dr. Drexler: Dr. Skvorc, can you tell us about your background?
Dr. Skvorc: Sure – I am an associate professor in our University’s doctoral programs for strategic intelligence and global security. My Ph.D. is from the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and I received my law degree from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. In addition, I serve as the Behavioral Health Screening Official for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Select Agent and Biosurety programs.
Dr. Drexler: You’ll both be joining the field research in Metlakatla – what are you looking forward to the most about this experience?
Tara: This will be my first trip to Southeast Alaska, and I’m excited to see the unique reservation community. I’m looking forward to seeing the unique ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted daily life and community systems.
Dr. Skvorc: We will carefully listen and respectfully observe how laws and customs regarding health, hunting and fishing, education, family life, and tribal life, have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We will also examine spiritual practices and beliefs, law enforcement, and other aspects of Native life.
Dr. Drexler: What do you think you will learn about this pandemic study? How will this study impact you and your work?
Dr. Skvorc: The opportunity to conduct field studies with Native Alaskans in Metlakatla and Native Americans in New Mexico within the context of COVID-19’s impacts present valuable research opportunities. They reflect the interconnectedness of law and public health within the prism of Indigenous people, both in the United States and internationally.
Within this context, the pandemic has produced remarkable developments in the two societal pillars of law and public health, including three separate U.S. Supreme Court opinions. One case directly determined Native American tribes’ eligibility to receive over $7 billion in public health funding. Also, there were two cases relating to jurisdiction to prosecute crimes by or upon Native Americans residing in historic Indian territory in Oklahoma.
In addition, there were international legal decisions pertaining to constitutional public health protections for Indigenous peoples in Brazil and Ecuador. Within the framework of law and public health, important questions have arisen regarding the authority to enact and enforce public health measures and the ripple impact on many elements of society concerning access to justice, quality of life, and public health. I am eager, together with my co-faculty members and student researchers, to learn more about these impacts, especially in Metlakatla.
Tara: The study in Metlakatla will add to the overall understanding of the impact COVID-19 has had on access to resources, healthcare, and legal services for Indigenous populations throughout the US. Additionally, this study and interactions with the people of Metlakatla will be valuable for better understanding the impact on microcultures and the resiliency of communities. The study information will provide valuable insight into future resiliency plans and policies for indigenous communities. I have already learned a great deal working with Dr. Skvorc. He has continually offered guidance and focus for me and helped inspire myr future studies.
Dr. Drexler: It is clear Tara appreciates working with you, Dr. Skvorc! Do you like the faculty-student team research approach?
Dr. Skvorc: I am an enthusiastic advocate of involving student researchers in our field study, and I have been fortunate to work with Tara, who has a family and career in Alaska. Her insights regarding life in Alaska – with a focus on Native Alaskans, access to courts and justice, access regulations regarding hunting and fishing, public health, and quality of life issues – have been an asset to our study.
Tara’s energetic research on issues reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on legal rights to a speedy trial, the opportunity to be released on bail pending trial, and supervision in the community have raised questions. I look forward to learning more about those questions and their solutions during our visit to Metlakatla and with follow-up data and archive research. It is a privilege to work with our student researcher team, and I am eager to provide guidance for potential further opportunities for advancing their scholarship and research.
Public Health/Legal Programs and Organizations at the University
- The University’s School of Health Sciences 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 science organizations at the University, including the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and Women in STEM (wSTEM).
- The School of Security and Global Studies offers various law-related degrees. These programs include online associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in legal studies and criminal justice, as well as an undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies.
- There are also law-related organizations at the University, including the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity and the Criminology Club.
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 Department of Security and Global Studies, where she also teaches in the doctoral program. She has a degree in International Studies from the 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 & Achievement, and the American Anthropological Association.