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A conversation with Laurie Dunne

This January, Laurie Dunne joined our team as an Indigenous Fellow, providing crucial geographic information system (GIS) support to the Keex' Kwaan Community Forest Partnership based in Kake, Alaska.

Shortly after Laurie relocated from Metlakatla, Alaska to Portland, Ore. for this fellowship, the state of Oregon went under lockdown. Despite the challenges of working from home, Laurie has diligently built a routed road network for Kake—a major improvement over what is currently available in Google Maps for the small community.

Communications team members Emilie Chen and Megan Foucht chat with Laurie about her interest in GIS, her experience working from home, and her hopes for the future.

What was your favorite thing about growing up in Metlakatla?

Being surrounded by my family and friends. Southeast Alaska in general is a pretty cultural place to be. For example, the 7th of August is our Founder’s Day for Metlakatla. I think we’re on something like our 133rd year. We have a huge parade, Indian dancing, a bunch of our native foods, fireworks, races and other activities. Not everybody is able to get fish every year, so a lot of people will donate to everybody else, so we can all have our jarred and smoked fish.

There are a lot of natural resources that we thrive off of, like fireweed, salmonberries, huckleberries. Pretty much anything that’s edible, we can find a way to do something with it. My family specifically, we like to go out and get fireweed and all these types of berries, and my mom just loves to make jams and jellies.

Who or what provides inspiration for your passions? Do you have any role models?

Definitely everybody from my community’s past. Growing up, you hear a lot about how my town was brought from Metlakatla in B.C., Canada all the way to Metlakatla, Alaska. A lot of the people during that time were trying to help keep our culture alive, due to things like being given different last names and not being able to speak our own language in schools. A lot of our ancestors helped make sure that we were still able to be educated [on our culture]. My great, great, great grandfather Benjamin A. Haldane is definitely a huge inspiration for me.

About yourself, what do you feel passionate about?

My culture and the environment—those are two huge things I’m really passionate about. My native language Sm’álgyax is dying, so I try really hard to speak as much of my language as I can. I’m not fluent at all, but it’s something I’d like to keep with me since there are only approximately four fluent speakers (give or take a few) in Metlakatla, Alaska. There are more in Metlakatla, B.C., but I’m not sure exactly how many.

Not a lot of people in our culture were really taught how to speak Sm’álgyax because of everything that happened. It’s something I picked up in school, not something I picked up from family—although they do say little words here and there, like etsm anay, which just means “fry bread.”

Laurie Dunne

How did you first become interested in GIS work?

I was having a lot of trouble finding something that I was interested in [at University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau]. I wasn’t even interested in my own major, biology. 

I found the GIS class and took it, and it just came really naturally to me. I also did some GIS work with my last job on invasive species. I was keeping track of where all these invasive species were pulled, what date, what location, how much of each species were pulled, and then I would make maps with all of that data using ArcGIS Online. I used the data that I collected for a project in my GIS classes, and it made me realize, “Holy cow, you could do a bunch of stuff with this.” It was pretty cool.

What are some of the projects you’re working on at Ecotrust? How do you explain what you do to your family?

I basically just say, “It’s digital mapping.” GIS is a super hard thing to explain to somebody else, because it’s so many things in one. The big project that I’m working on is the road system in Kake, Alaska. A lot of it was fixing up the roads (data), making sure everything was connected. 

Kake, for instance, doesn’t really have street signs, which is something I found out when I started working on this. Everything is named “Street 1, Street 2, Street 3.” My hometown is kind of the same way; there are absolutely no road signs or street signs there. I also worked on the Hoonah project where I had to create a road buffer, so that you could see how much cost for every 100 meters or whatever the road was. 

Most of my GIS experience came from the classes that I took, so it’s definitely great to be using actual, real data and not just a sample of data. Using real data is way different than using a problem set from a class. 

Your fellowship with Ecotrust started in January, and just a few months later, lockdown happened. What has it been like to experience the pandemic living in a new place?

It’s very crazy and very lonely. Incredibly different than what it’s like at home. When I was home [for a few weeks between July and August], family gatherings were still a thing. Not everything was shut down. It’s such an isolated place compared to Portland, where I can’t even step outside without my mask on. But it’s definitely lonely to not be around family or friends. Making friends when everything is shut down is super hard, too.

What’s been your experience being on Ecotrust’s Knowledge Systems team?

It’s great to have all these people who are able to answer most of the questions that I have, because I don’t have a lot of GIS experience. People like Jocelyn [Tutak] who are very, very, very knowledgeable so it’s nice to be on the same team as her and be able to ask questions if I have any. Some things with GIS are super hard to figure out, even if it’s just a little thing that I did wrong. Jon [Bonkoski] has helped me a lot with remote working. We have weekly meetings where we discuss my work, what I can/need to get done, or we just discuss issues that I’m having. It’s important to keep in contact during these times.

What would you say to another young Indigenous person or someone from your community who was interested in GIS work—what kinds of recommendations would you have for them?

For someone interested in GIS work, I would say to go on the ESRI website, because they do have free trainings every now and then and a lot of amazing videos and problem sets that you can do.

When I was doing GIS in school, I didn’t get super interested in it right away. The thing that got me most interested was having something that I was already passionate about (biology), and then applying that to GIS. If there’s something that you can apply to GIS, then think about that at the same time as you’re doing your class work. For me, it was my invasive species work. Using data that I helped collect to create a project using ArcMap made me so much more motivated to create it.

What are some of your goals for the future?

Definitely to finish school. I transferred schools right before I came here, so I still have to finish that. Also to travel more places and move to more places. A huge one is to go back home after I’m done with school and traveling, just so I can help. 

I have so many ideas for how to help my hometown. Before I left, I was working as a grant writer with IGAP—Indian General Assistance Program. I made a work plan to have Metlakatla start recycling and composting. So I was hoping we could get started on something like that. All we have is a big landfill, and having all that toxic waste dead in the middle of the island isn’t good. I just think we can really benefit from recycling. And living somewhere like Portland, where we’re already recycling and composting—it’s nice to see what my town could be like if it were more environmentally friendly.

Thank you, Laurie.