By Evelyn Agnus, RCAC rural development specialist

Evelyn Agnus
Evelyn Agnus, RCAC RDS

My Indigenous – Alaskan Yup’ik name is Arnariaq. My government name is Evelyn Agnus, and I come from a family as the second oldest of 10 siblings. I grew up in a southwestern community of Chefornak, Alaska during the winter months, and my family migrates to Umkumiut, Alaska during the summers for subsistence. I am the first in my family to complete college. My parents are Paul (Nurauq) and Nora (Cagluaq) Agnus who were the first to attend boarding school in St. Mary’s Alaska. My paternal grandparents Simeon (Unaangiik) and Anna (Avegyaq) Agnus, and maternal grandparents Cyril (Kayuungiarr) and Agnes (Avegyaq) Alexie all grew up living our traditional lifestyle.

It has been both extremely important and beneficial to translate source water protection and solid waste outreach materials from English to my Indigenous Yup’ik language for Yup’ik-speaking communities. Growing up in the Tribal village of Chefornak and Nightmute, my primary language was Yup’ik, until the third grade in elementary school when I started transitioning to English, which felt quite challenging at the time. My teachers were predominantly Yup’ik teachers, who understand the challenges of speaking English for the first time. Elders often visited our school and instructed us that we should only use English in school and work in the future but speak only Yup’ik when we are among our family. By the seventh grade, we were taught to record our elders with cassette tapes, and practice translating Yup’ik to English on paper. This was the way our elders wanted us to grow up, so when we started working, we would have the skills to translate the language. Being bilingual is a strength that helps me excel at a high level of thought, multi-tasking, and sustained attention. I found that I have sharper cognitive skills to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention because I am bilingual in my primary native language and English.

RCAC is currently working with the Tribal Yup’ik Village of Akiachak, under our U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Solid Waste grant. Akiachak is a remote (no road system) traditional Yup’ik community located 400 miles west of Anchorage on the Kuskokwim River. The Class III landfill there is unlined, unmanned, and unfenced, and an assessment is needed to determine if any contamination is affecting source water. Only 50 percent of the local households are served with running water. The landfill comingles human and solid waste. As is the case throughout rural Alaska, the cost of “backhauling” waste out of Akiachak makes reducing the waste stream a vital need.

Our grant work objectives include:

  1. Assessing any potential contaminants from landfill to source water.
  2. Training landfill operators to manage and operate local landfills properly and safely, to protect public health and reduce environmental issues.
  3. Reducing honey bucket (a toilet which does not use water and has to be emptied manually) and solid waste commingling.
  4. Increasing re-use and recycling opportunities to reduce the waste stream going to the landfill.

Working at RCAC gives me the opportunity to teach the Yup’ik communities about the importance of environmental awareness. Tribal governments are nations within a nation, as they have their own laws and governments. Many Tribal communities suffer from financial poverty due to a growing population, limited job opportunities and poor health care systems. Outside projects such as construction and demolition often occur at Tribal communities in Alaska, and solid waste is generally collected and placed on the ground in uncontrolled “open dumps,” which are often unlined Class III landfills, or are un-permitted. Because these open dumps are unmanaged, they are disease vectors and the source of unpleasant odors, windblown debris, and other nuisances, which can limit Tribes’ economic sustainability. The dumps can contaminate groundwater and pollute nearby streams and lakes on the tundra watershed. A highly toxic liquid called leachate is generated from garbage decomposition and precipitation that infiltrates and percolates downward through the volume of waste material. When leachate reaches and mixes with groundwater or seeps into nearby bodies of surface water, public health and environmental quality are jeopardized. The need to understand these environmental challenges is why, I believe I should be translating materials. Doing this translation to support outreach and education in this community would mean I am returning to a skill that I was trained in growing up. And as a technical assistance provider (TAP), I feel that it is my civic and tribal duty to work as an environmental protector and protect drinking water.

The Alaskan Yup’ik cultural language and values demonstrate leadership and integrity that align simultaneously with the way we genuinely live in arctic conditions. The responsibility to revitalize and preserve my culture is also about the survival and mastery of the wisdom the elders taught us and leads to a complete understanding of the Yup’ik way of life and our place in it. The elders taught us to never forget the unwritten rules and instructions of living a sustained life. A leader must learn by paying attention to other people’s knowledge because we share what we know and use our perceptions to learn from others who specialize in other subjects. This principle is to balance the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives and differing viewpoints to gain more understanding. To find balance means to consider all sides and opinions with an open mind, and to have self-confidence to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, which leaves room for improvement. One of my favorite values as a leader is humility. I can never forget who I am, and where I came from. Humility keeps life in perspective as I continue to experience success in my chosen career. In addition, it helps me value each person I encounter and treat everyone with respect.

GIS mappingUsing geographic information system (GIS) technology teaches communities to visualize source water protection and pollution prevention. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has GIS maps for source water protection in each community with a water system, and it is useful to publish the maps for education and outreach. I use my skills and knowledge to assist communities to protect their inheritance, the environment, land usage, and transportation with those printed maps. GIS tools can be used to map the water and wastewater system and to address environmental issues including the ecological importance of water quality. Using groundwater protection boundaries creates effective land-use planning in a community, including zoning ordinances for development management. Using GIS in my work as a TAP shows that a Tribe or community can map, manage, and monitor their preserved land as a Tribal sovereign nation. Explaining maps in the Yup’ik language is beneficial to help leaders understand their development needs. As sovereign, Tribal governments have a responsibility for the health of their Tribal members, and to maintain their subsistence way of life, mapping their water, wastewater, and solid waste systems can help meet water quality standards, preventing the destruction of their clean surface or groundwater, so they can make sound governance decisions on how to manage their land.

I face challenges in my ability to translate between the two languages when there are no words in Yup’ik from English, and I try to find ways to make those words understood today. I do my best to translate between the languages and cultures and practice patience when helping Tribal leaders understand I am educating them so that they can make the best decisions to govern their citizens. The result of my TAP work at RCAC is beneficial as I bring together the languages I was taught, the use of GIS technology, and a desire to protect the environment in rural communities.

Download an example of material translated into Yup’ik HERE

Article reprinted from Summer 2021 Rural Matters, The magazine of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. RCAC serves the western RCAP region.