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Canada and the Pacific Northwest Coast

Michael Tillotson holding a fish

October 31, 2012

As a student in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, my studies focus on the physical and abstract interactions of the human and natural worlds in the marine environment. The coast is a particularly important place to study these interactions because of the incredible amount of human and natural activity that takes place in a relatively small area, and because of the rapid pace of change in coastal communities and ecosystems. For communities that have historically prospered based on their proximity to the ocean change has not always been kind. Very generally my research is intended to explore the ways in which place-dependent communities can survive in the face of change. There is perhaps no better example of a place-dependent community than the indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest. Not only do they have some of the longest standing traditions and ties to the land, but they have also demonstrated a huge capacity for adaptation, and continue to face some of the most significant challenges among coastal communities.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest have for time immemorial adapted to change along our coasts. Their way of life has survived the advance and retreat of glaciers, as well as to the advance of Europeans. Today the challenges faced by indigenous communities seem no less significant. They face changes in the marine resources on which they depend in addition to lingering social and economic issues. A lack of local economic opportunities can lead to migration away from communities which in turn weakens cultural ties to the place and its resources. My research seeks to address this issue by considering what types of economic development can successfully and sustainably utilize the cultural and natural resources of indigenous communities to ensure that they survive in the face of change.

With the generous funding of the FLAS fellowship I have been able to enroll in Tlingit language classes; an indigenous language of Southeast Alaska and Northern British Columbia. This opportunity has been challenging – Tlingit contains at least 20 sounds not used in English – and fascinating. I have been pleased to find that the language and the culture cannot be readily separated, and thus my language studies have been integral to gaining a better understanding of what is at risk of being lost if indigenous communities cannot find sustainable industries.

Throughout Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia indigenous communities are experimenting with industries that draw off their existing capacities while honoring culture. These include, for example, cultural tourism, aquaculture, seafood processing and renewable energy. Over the remainder of the year I will be working to evaluate such opportunities and their success in achieving the goal of cultural, economic and environmental sustainability in indigenous communities.

Funding for FLAS Fellowships is provided by a Center allocation from International and Foreign Language Education, U.S. Department of Education. Visit our FLAS page: