Assistant Professor of American Studies, Kristen Barnett TIM LEACH ’99/Courtesy Photo
When I first interviewed Dr. Kristen D. Barnett in early February of 2020, the world was a very different place. Dr. Barnett had recently received two grants from the National Science Foundation, including one worth $706,000. The grants were to be used to further her research project, “Temyiq Tuyuryuq: Community Archaeology the Yup’iit Way,” in partnership with the Togiak Community in Alaska.
As part of her research award, she had planned to return to Alaska with Bates students during Short Term 2020. A month after my interview with Dr. Barnett, the COVID-19 outbreak prompted the college to send students home, and online learning commenced. Not long after, Short Term was canceled, and along with it, Dr. Barnett’s trip. This week, I met with Dr. Barnett to learn about the state of her research during this uncertain time.
When asked about prospective trips to Togiak, she replied, “I haven’t been back at all. And I won’t be returning this year. There is a disastrous colonial history of genocide and the intentional introduction of devastating diseases in Indigenous communities as part of the colonial history of the U.S.” Dr. Barnett said she could not ethically return to Togiak until the entire village has received the vaccine, and trials have determined that vaccinated people cannot spread the disease. While disappointing, she feels that the health and well-being of the community must come before her research.
Dr. Barnett has had limited contact with the Togiak community over the past year. This results from complicated communication networks, the pressing nature of her family caretaking and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, and its ensuing mental health challenges on Indigenous communities and communities of color.
Aside from the Togiak community, the pandemic has also impacted mental health and well-being on campus, especially as it has been coupled with racialized violence both across the United States and specifically at Bates.
Given these challenges and the cancellation of Short Term for the second year in a row, Dr. Barnett’s work requires a reimagining. She is still actively planning for the future: “I applied for an extension with the National Science Foundation, which allows for the time to reconceptualize the research and figure out how to proceed.”
Dr. Barnett is currently trying to find ways to make archeology more relevant and meaningful in Togiak, explicitly connecting Indigenous past with its future. One idea is to use augmented or virtual reality to make the field more engaging. Togiak students have thought a great deal about what they would like to learn from Dr. Barnett’s project, including which aspects of the old village they are most interested in exploring. The whole process has been a collaboration between the Dr. Barnett, Bates students, and Togiak community.
The students’ ideas center around social aspects and establishing tangible continuity with elders. “This allows for the possibility of integrating performance, dance, and story-telling,” Dr. Barnett said. She hopes that she can use this virtual reality technology to help meet the youth’s requests and facilitate the much-desired integrations of generational knowledge sharing.
Dr. Barnett noted that she has had to de-center herself and re-center around the Togiak community in light of the pandemic, something that this work has always sought to do. She aims to work closely with the village councils and school to navigate these new directions.
In the meantime, Dr. Barnett has been working on several articles and co-editing a special edition journal. She has also been teaching courses remotely. “The module system and teaching remote have required a complete restructuring of all my courses, including assessments,” she said, “this is an enormous amount of work.”
Dr. Barnett is teaching “Archeology and Colonial Entanglements” in Module C and will be teaching two courses — ”Production & Reproduction” and “Research as Social Justice” — during Module D. She is particularly excited about ”Production & Reproduction,” a virtual lab class.
Regarding “Archeology and Colonial Entanglements,” Dr. Barnett has continued to see a growth in interest in Indigenous Studies from Bates students. She noted, “Some of the feedback I get from students when they first come into the class is that they’re really wanting Indigenous Studies classes and they recognize their education in these areas is not only lacking but grossly inaccurate.”
She hopes that the Bates administration will recognize the importance of Indigenous Studies and prioritize its development, acknowledging that it is an unfortunate gap in a college that places critical inquiry and racial justice as core values. Still, she noted that, “Students have enormous power when it comes to their education and curriculum offerings. We saw this at the recent student protest this past fall, although it should not require a protest to have their voices heard.”
The administration and the board of trustees oversee new developments at Bates. Many of the trustees are Bates Alumni, so they value student experience and needs. With so much interest in this area, Dr. Barnett hopes that the administration and the trustees will begin to promote Indigenous Studies.
Furthermore, if students want changes to the curriculum and the courses offered at Bates, they should feel empowered to pursue those requests, she said. This is a valuable area of study that allows for transdisciplinary inquiry supporting students across the college while also supporting college values.