Grant to help Alaska tribe sell crafts online

Researcher believes that villagers can generate cash via the Internet

Posted: Monday, November 10, 2003

PHILADELPHIA - When he attended a child's birthday party in a remote Alaska village one recent summer, researcher Steve Dinero was surprised to find the pinata, pizza and cake that mark children's parties in the Lower 48.

"It was the same schtick. You could be in Cherry Hill, New Jersey," said Dinero, referring to the Philadelphia suburb where he lives. Then he looked around.

"And there's the giant cauldron of moosehead stew," he said Thursday in a telephone interview from Anchorage, where he was attending a conference.

Dinero, a professor at Philadelphia University, hopes the same juxtaposition of old and new can help sustain the native way of life in Arctic Village, a bush community 250 miles north of Fairbanks.

The once-nomadic Neets'aii Gwich'in Indians still live largely off the land, on caribou, moose and berries. But they increasingly need hard currency to buy $5-a-gallon gasoline for their all-terrain vehicles, $10 boxes of Cheerios and $300 flights to Fairbanks for supplies and doctors' visits.

Dinero believes that the 172 villagers can generate cash - and perhaps wean themselves from state and federal aid - by selling Native crafts and other wares on the Internet.

With a $600,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, he and several colleagues plan to offer computer and business training at the community high school.

In Alaska on Thursday, Dinero met with H.A. "Red" Boucher, an 82-year-old former lieutenant governor who's been crusading to boost Internet access in remote villages.

"I want to be able to see an Eskimo kid hunt caribou by day and go to Philadelphia University or MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) or the college of their choosing at night," Boucher said. "If the Native Americans start leaving their communities or villages, we have lost our heritage."

Gwich'in tribe members might sell beadwork or leather goods, promote tourism to travelers visiting the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or even take online jobs or coursework, Dinero said.

"In summertime, we have hikers go through our (two) airports, hundreds of them. ... With the Web site, they'd be interested in seeing something else in the village," said acting tribal chief Gideon Jane, 64, who, like other adults, returned home after several years away in the service and learning a trade.

Far from being technophobic, Jane uses e-mail at his tribal office. And while the cabins and prefabricated government houses that dot the area lack running water, about half have phones and all have satellite TV, Dinero said.

At the foundation's urging, Dinero's team also will undertake a comparative project with another bush community west of Fairbanks called Koyukuk, which has about 300 people.

The villages are a long way from Israel, where Dinero spent time with the Bedouin population to study what happens to nomadic people - culturally, economically, socially - when they build a settlement.

The Gwich'ins, who are thought to have come from Asia more than 10,000 years ago, settled in northeast Alaska in the mid-1800s, when missionary Episcopalians from Canada converted them to Christianity, Dinero said.

He discovered the community on the Internet about five years ago, when he was looking for another once-nomadic group to study. But he saw enough tangible problems on his visits - unemployment, poverty, substance abuse - to push his theoretical query to the back burner.

"This is a way of saying they don't have to be the victims of globalization, but they can ride the wave of it, so to speak, and enjoy some of the benefits that we enjoy," said Dinero, who teaches human geography.

"My hope is, with this project, to use modern technology to allow them to live as they wish to live, and remain in this part of the world."



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