Sig Tapqaq: Our Relationship to the Land is Vital to Who We Are

Two Tribes in Meghan Siġvanna Tapqaq (Sig)'s region, Savoonga and Gambell, hope to create Indigenous stewardship programs. Sig participated with tribal members in an Alaska Venture Fund sponsored exchange to Canada to learn about the Indigenous Guardians program in Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area.

Sig Taqpaq at Iqaluit.

Tallurutiup Imanga and Alaska Projects

Meghan Siġvanna Tapqaq (Sig) is Iñupiaq and an enrolled citizen of the Native Village of Ambler, with family roots in Qawiaraq, Teller and White Mountain. She works as staff attorney at Kawerak, a nonprofit tribal consortium serving 16 communities and 20 Tribes in northwestern Alaska. Sig oversees Kawerak’s tribal legal department, which provides legal services to the region’s Tribes ranging from child welfare to contract review and environmental stewardship to development of tribal justice systems.

Circumpolar north between Alaska and Nunavut.

Two Tribes in her region, Savoonga and Gambell, hope to create Indigenous stewardship programs. In September 2023, Sig and tribal members participated in an Alaska Venture Fund sponsored exchange to Canada to learn about the Indigenous Guardians program in the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area in Nunavut. The trip was part of Alaska Venture Fund’s Indigenous Ecosystem Stewardship Exchange Program, which fosters connections between Alaska and Canadian Indigenous peoples working to reclaim stewardship of their ancestral lands. AVF partnered on the exchange with Caleb Scholars, Aqqaluk Trust, Kawerak and Qikiqtani Inuit Association

Tallurutiup Imanga was established in 2019 along with groundbreaking agreements between the Canadian government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), which represents more than half of Nunavut’s Inuit people. QIA explains, “These unprecedented Agreements ensure Inuit governance of the protected areas, jobs for Inuit as environmental stewards and funding to address the infrastructure deficit in the High Arctic.”

Nauttiqsuqtiit (Inuit stewards) are the eyes and ears of Tallurutiup Imanga, monitoring the water and land, and harvesting traditional foods to benefit the community.

Efforts to build similar partnerships are taking root across Alaska. These efforts include:

  • Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association – community-based monitoring 
  • Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission – data sovereignty and co-management of salmon fisheries
  • Indigenous Sentinels Network/Aleut Community of St. Paul – co-management with National Marine Fisheries Service
  • Igiugig Village Council – regional network of community-based monitoring programs
  • Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska – co-management with US Forest Service via the Sustainable Southeast Partnership
  • Bering Sea Elders Group/Kawerak – co-management of Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area

Miaraq, Warren Jones, AVF’s Program Manager for Cross-Cultural Collaborations co-led the exchange and was deeply moved by the experience: “Spending time with Inuit across the border only reinforced that our people span nations. There was a deep connection between the people we met and learned from. What we saw in Canada was a model that really resonated with the Alaska cohort.”

Kevipak, Derek Akeya, a council member of the Native Village of Savoonga and Alaska exchange participant, agreed. Kevipak hopes to create a program in Savoonga inspired by the Nauttiqsukiit, and is considering naming it the Tunuusaq (gift) Program.

AVF’s Rebecca Braun interviewed Meghan Siġvanna Tapqaq (Sig) about how Indigenous stewardship relates to Alaska Native wellbeing and tribal sovereignty, and what she gained from the exchange. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed.


Rebecca Braun (RB): How does Indigenous stewardship fit with the work you do?

Meghan Siġvanna Tapqaq (ST): Our relationship to the land is vital to who we are as Iñupiaq people. Everything we do and everything we are relates back to the land – our language, relationships, how we understand the world. 

We’re seeking to care for the environment because we know when we take care of the land our people are taken care of and vice versa. It’s more than just food. It’s cultural nourishment, spiritual nourishment. When I eat Native foods, I know who’s hunted it and what sort of life it’s led, and the way it makes my body feel is very different from store-bought meat. 

It’s also about our mental health. It’s about healing, especially when so many of our people have experienced generational trauma.

Ice and mountains across from Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet).
Iceberg at Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet).

RB: How do traditional Indigenous values mesh with modern realities?

ST: In Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) we experienced a really great embodiment of our traditional values playing out in the modern context. Obviously we can’t go back 500 years and live the way we did. Colonization and contact have left a mark on us as people, on the land, it’s not something that can be undone. For me it’s about, How do we take the spirit of who we are and our value systems that have been handed down over millennia, and build institutions that exemplify those values and meet the contemporary needs of our people?

We’re hoping to try to find ways to replicate the guardianship program. In the Lower 48, some Tribes have their own clean water and clean air regulations. Tribes do a lot of water quality testing. Right now there’s controversy around the Graphite mine [in our region]. It’s a really important subsistence area.

Narwhal hunters in Baffin Bay.
Ice and mountains in Baffin Bay.

RB: What was a highlight of your visit?

ST: After we went out hunting there was a big community event. The hunters laid out cardboard on the floor of the community building and laid out big chunks of narwhal and seal. People brought their ulus and there were families and kids running around. They all hunkered down on the floor and were cutting with their ulus and munching on it raw and packing up what their family needed. 

There was a mom, and her baby would run by and she would stick a piece of muktuk in the baby’s mouth and the baby would chomp it and run around. There was a hunter cutting up a seal. One of the little girls really wanted the eyeball and she just popped it in her mouth.

 It was incredibly beautiful to see kids running around speaking our language, eating our food, participating in cultural activities – and it was such a normal thing for the community. That’s what I want for my own family and myself, for all of this to be a normal everyday part of our lives.

RB: What are potential benefits of a guardianship-type program?

ST: You see this tension around creating jobs, extracting resources, and aspects of how we’ve always lived. How do you balance those? Are there other ways to find compromise? 

I think one way is with a guardianship program. It can help create jobs and address food security needs. At the village store – if there’s even food – a little can of formula can cost $40, and a lot of food that is stocked is pretty unhealthy.

Every generation of my father’s side of the family since the beginning of time have been born and raised on these lands – that kind of connection and history runs deep in people. We have high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide, substance abuse. None of those things are traditional for us – those are learned behaviors since colonization, and the way I see healing come in is through rebuilding our connection to the land and being able to make decisions about our own futures. 

That means having a rural justice system, being stewards of our environment – regulating land use, who can hunt and when according to the principles from our ancestors, not from a group of people who may have never set foot in our community who are sitting in an office in Juneau or Washington D.C.

I see this work as foundational to tribal sovereignty, to who we are as a people.

RB: What does success look like for Indigenous stewardship?

ST: I think success is happy, healthy thriving people in communities that have access to our traditional foods, who have strong relationships to and understanding of the environment that we live in, the animals that sustain us, the plants that sustain us; our traditional medicinal practices have come back to life, our languages have come back to life and woken up again, and our suicide rates and other social issues we’ve been grappling with are receding and people have culturally appropriate ways of healing and being in the world, and we have autonomy over our bodies and our land. 

RB: What are the barriers to establishing guardianship-type programs in Alaska?

ST: Tribes aren’t empowered to make decisions. If we try to put in place an ordinance, we don’t have authority over the land because it’s federally or state owned or corporate owned. 

It’s a paternalistic system – ‘we’ll hold it for you because we don’t trust you to manage it.’ Western science is showing time and time again that Indigenous knowledge is accurate, but we still aren’t allowed to have any sort of meaningful authority in regulating plants and animals.

The vision a lot of us have is pretty simple and straightforward but the means of achieving it are incredibly complex. ANILCA [the Alaska National Interest Lands Lands Conservation Act of 1980] creates a dual system of management. You go downriver to fish, you’re subject to state law, you go upriver and you’re subject to federal law. In order to be a hunter here you need to be a lawyer and a surveyor because you have to know what land you’re on and what regulations apply.

We’re standing at the threshold asking to be let in, and we’re told you’re not the landowner, you don’t have a science degree, there are all these barriers that get imposed – and yet, for thousands and thousands of years, we managed quite well. Not perfectly, but I think for the most part we lived in a good balance with the land and with animals. We need to be empowered to take back control of the land. 

Baffin Bay

RB: What is needed to overcome those barriers?

ST: Ultimately, we need Tribes to be empowered to exercise their sovereignty. We need Tribes to be empowered to do what they know is right, and to manage our lands and plants and animals and communities as we have for thousands of years.

In Gambell and Savoonga, key issues are funding and making sure we’re not violating [Western] laws – like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and state and federal hunting and fishing regulations. We have to work through the legal implications. But this is a right we possess. The UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People recognizes this fundamental right.

To learn more about Indigenous Guardians work in Kawerak’s region, please reach out to Meghan Siġvanna Tapqaq.

To learn more about AVF’s Indigenous Guardians work or explore how you can contribute to this effort, please reach out to Miaraq, Warren Jones.

All photos by Rodney Ungwiluk, Jr. Rodney is a photographer, birder, and tribal council member of the Native Village of Gambell located on St. Lawrence Island off the northwest coast of Alaska.

Published 6/27/24

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