Activist and scientist Charitie Ropati is on a mission to amplify Alaska Native voices

A young woman looks up at carvings
Charitie Ropati headshot

CHARITIE ROPATI

HOME Anchorage, Alaska

CAUSE Incorporating Alaska Native knowledge in science and conservation

When Charitie Ropati teaches STEM workshops for Alaska Native youth, she asks students to draw a scientist. More times than not, they draw a white man with a white coat, says the 22-year-old Yup’ik and Samoan scientist and climate activist from Anchorage. But sometimes, “a scientist is a hunter,” she says. Or, like many in her community, it’s “someone who understands local ecology.”

Ropati, winner of WWF’s 2023 Conservation Leadership Award, is familiar with the marginalization of Native peoples in the education system. When she was a child, her mother and grandmother taught her the history of her land, culture, and people, explaining how her ancestors would hunt seals or harvest berries from the Arctic tundra. She also learned to speak her native language. In the classroom, however, teachers often referred to her people in the past tense—“like a picture in a book.”

To challenge that erasure, Ropati developed a historically accurate, Native-centric subcurriculum while in high school. The lessons highlight the traumas of colonialism faced by Indigenous peoples, but also foreground their perspectives and resiliency through readings, film, and guest speakers. She was also key in helping pass a policy allowing Native students to wear cultural regalia at her school’s graduation.

An undergraduate at Columbia University, Ropati now studies permafrost and plant ecology in coastal Alaska and works to integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge—wisdom, beliefs, and practices handed down by Indigenous people over generations—into the sciences.

One of her research projects focuses on fireweed, a purply pink wildflower she says Alaska Natives know signals a change in the ecosystem. When Ropati began studying why the plant was appearing farther north than usual, she realized Western science agreed with Native knowledge: “There was increased nitrogen fertilization in the soil,” she says—a shift driven by global warming that could impact plants and food supplies.

Alaska Native communities know their land intimately; they’re also disproportionately impacted by climate change. That’s why they should be equitably involved in Arctic research and land management, says Ropati, yet they’re often underrepresented in STEM fields. In response, in 2023 she cofounded lilnativegirlinSTEM, a global network linking Indigenous girls and women with science resources.

“People have so much to learn from us,” Ropati says. “When we have access to scientific spaces, we bring a unique—and needed—perspective.”

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