Born and raised in Cordova, Jen Smith always loved school, specifically reading and writing. However, she admits she didn’t do well on the SATs and she “wasn’t a shiny star” of the school. She was good at basketball and wanted to play in college, but beyond that she didn’t know what her career path would be. This past spring, she became the 99th Alaska Native to receive a PhD. It’s a remarkably low number and a result of structural inequality that keeps many Native people and people of color out of academia.
“So much of my experience has been luck,” she said. “If the right professors didn’t come into my life at the right times. Or if randomly, I hadn’t learned about some funding resource and applied to it. There’s such little structural support for Native people that want to go into higher education, and people of color more broadly. It wasn’t until my last year of college that one of my professors was like ‘You should apply to graduate school’ and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ ”
During the summers, she spends time in Cordova with her family. She and her mom, Pam Smith, are busy with many projects that include processing fish, smoking salmon, harvesting wild berries, making tinctures and salves, and cooking up many meals together.
“Some of the things I’m most proud of happening in Cordova, is my mom’s genealogy project, and the Eyak place names mapping project with the Eyak Cultural Foundation and the Eyak culture camps,” Smith said.
It was leaving Cordova, in addition to having the resources, skills and the time to be able to pour herself into her studies, that led Smith to researching many of the questions she had about being an Alaska Native.
The questions don’t have simple answers, but simply learning about her own history, the history of where she comes from, and the history of Alaska Natives that propel her forward.
“Even though my ideas and the trajectory of my project has changed – and changed multiple times over the six years I’ve been there, at the center of it, the question that I came in with, kind of remained the guiding direction,” she said. “Being an Alaska Native person, everything is so confusing and not being able to have easily accessible information that teaches you, as a Native person, what your histories are, what the land claims mean, why are they so different from reservations, and what a treaty is… and all of these really basic things that are so different in Alaska. Alaska Native people have had really divergent experiences of colonization while there are of course similarities and overlaps, the experiences of Alaska Natives have been really different. And that remained at the center of ‘why have all those experiences been so different than the Lower 48 and Continental U.S.,’ and so having that at the center of my research, made archival work really kind of fun, as troubling and traumatizing as it was, as it can be, trying to unearth all these violent histories. It’s also empowering to start answering those questions that you grow up thinking but often don’t even know how to articulate the question itself. So, in that way, doing research for me is extremely empowering. And knowing one’s history.”
This past spring, she earned her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies. In the fall she will be taking a one-year position as a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California Davis. Next fall, she will be an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Geography and American Indian Studies Program.