Alumna takes on Alaska’s wild side

When I tell Meredith Marchioni that I’ve just learned there may be a brown bear nearby, she immediately takes off. Not away from the bear but toward it. “Down here?” she turns to ask, heading toward a line of cottonwood trees on the banks of the Kenai River, Alaska’s world-renowned fly-fishing spot.

We’ve met here so that Marchioni, who earned her Ph.D. in comparative sociology from FIU in 2009, can tell me about her work with Native Alaskan communities in remote villages. But first, she wants to check out the bear.

Luckily (for me, anyway), the bear had already disappeared into the woods. So, in another minute, I’m able to steer Marchioni to a nearby picnic table, and we spend the next hour or so sitting alongside the rushing river and chatting about the path that led her from Miami to Alaska.

On the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, photo by Tim Long

The journey has included tagging sharks in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez—part of her undergraduate research—guiding sea kayak expeditions in the Gulf of Alaska and working as a deckhand on crab boats in Chesapeake Bay and on commercial fishing boats in the North Pacific. And the reason she was so interested in that bear? During one of her first seasonal stints in Alaska, she apprenticed with a brown bear hunter.

“I have rarely come upon a student at the Ph.D. level who is so engaged in extreme outdoor experiences,” says FIU professor Dennis Wiedman, who served on Marchioni’s dissertation committee. “She’s an extreme outdoors person who then incorporates it into her scholarship.”

Marchioni first visited Alaska after completing her first year at FIU in 2004. A few years later, she got a job as a deckhand on a sport fishing boat based out of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula and started doing the initial fieldwork for her doctorate. That eventually led to a successfully defended dissertation on “Attitudes Toward The Marine Environment and Implications for Marine Resource Management in Seward, Alaska.”

Marchioni’s real passion is ethnography, which, she explains, is a way of conducting research that employs participant observation and in-depth, semi-structured interviews with people in their own environment. “A lot of it is just learning through doing and really immersing yourself to get the most accurate perspective of the culture you’re working with.”

Marchioni’s dissertation fieldwork gave her the experience for the job she would land two years after receiving her doctorate: cultural anthropologist in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Subsistence. Marchioni explains that, in this case, the word “subsistence” does not mean simply making ends meet. Instead, subsistence is “a real unique right that people in the state have, and people really value it,” she says of the long-ingrained interest in living off the land. “I’ve never met a single Alaskan who doesn’t harvest something for use in their home.”

Alaska Fish&Game Sign

As a cultural anthropologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Meredith Marchioni conducted harvest surveys and interviewed native Alaskan fishermen to help set catch limits that take into account both resource availability and traditional fishing practices. Photo by Tim Long

Her primary job has been to fly into far-flung Native Alaskan communities to conduct harvest surveys and ethnographic studies that document local subsistence practices such as hunting and fishing. State policymakers use the data to develop management practices for natural resources that run the gamut from wild plants and bird eggs to salmon, whale, moose and bear.

After four years working with the state, this past summer Marchioni launched her own consulting business. She now works directly with communities to document native people’s subsistence practices.

One community she’s been working with is a Tlingit Indian tribe in southeast Alaska’s Chilkat Valley. Their village in Klukwan is “one of the most beautiful places on earth,” says Marchioni. “The natural resources are abundant. The culture has been there a long time.  You can see why the Tlingit people went there to begin with.”

One of Marchioni’s key research findings about Tlingit subsistence practices is how not only the harvesting but, more importantly, the sharing of the wild plant and animal harvests underscores the significance of this unique right. Sharing, she says, “really is the crux of subsistence, because that is what is feeding people. But it’s also what is keeping people interlocked and networked. And it’s not just sharing with your family and your friends, it’s sharing with your neighbors, it’s sharing with an elder in the community. It’s what connects so much of Alaska together.”

Then she reaches her arm out in a gesture that encompasses the woods around our picnic table, the shining silver river and the fly fishermen on the riverbank. “This is subsistence,” she says. “Everything, the sport fishing, the commercial fishing. Anytime somebody goes out to get fish to bring home for their freezer, it’s subsistence.”

And I can tell with that one gesture that Meredith Marchioni is not simply a participant observer of what some might consider Alaska’s exotic folkways – this is her life. Sometimes when she’s heading back to Klukwan to conduct more research, as the small plane crosses over the mountains into the Chilkat Valley, she says, “I feel like I’m flying home.”  ♦


Feature photo by Lisa Hutchinson-Scarbrough