What is Resiliency?

On the hunt for gumboots (Photo credit: Ian Johnson).

As I walked into Heather Powell’s Tlingit Language and Culture classroom on a Wednesday morning, a handful of students between 6th-9th grade were eagerly chatting away, excited to escape the classroom once again. On Monday and Tuesday, the class, myself, and Jennifer Nu from Sustainable Southeast Partnerships (SSP) had been gathering traditional subsistence foods, or food collected from nature (for example berries, leaves, fish, etc.), to learn about Tlingit culture and gathering methods. So far, we had collected chitons (gumboots), deer’s heart, devil’s club, fiddlehead ferns, and fireweed shoots. This time we were looking for sea cucumbers, but before we left I had the chance to ask the students some questions. I was curious to find out how much the students knew about ecosystem resiliency. Discussing resiliency is important because it’s crucial to sustainable natural resource management and can directly affect people, especially Hoonah citizens who depend on the natural environment both culturally and physically.

A lucky gumboot that wasn’t harvested.

When I asked the class what “resiliency” meant you could have heard a pin drop. No one seemed to know what the actual definition of the term was, which is not surprising since it is a highly debated term in the academic world. Instead I asked if there were any other words that came to mind when they heard “resilient”. Finally one student spoke up and said “stubborn”. She wasn’t far off.

Although there are many definitions, ecological resiliency is generally described as the ability to recover and function properly after experiencing a difficult or disruptive circumstance. The term can be applied in many ways depending on your field of study. For example a person is resilient if they get back up right after they fell while running. Resilient people and things are generally stronger than non-resilient ones because they can bounce back to their previous state quicker. Environmental resilience is important because we want an ecosystem to be able to maintain its functions when it has been disrupted, especially when people like Hoonah citizens and communities throughout Southeast Alaska directly rely on the environment for foraging. One thing that almost all resilient systems have in common is that they are biodiverse. To be biologically diverse is to have a lot of varieties of life forms, which can help a community in many ways. Different organisms perform different functions and contribute something new to the ecosystem. Additionally, diversity within a system allows for it to adapt to different conditions more easily. This makes it more resilient and therefore increases its chance of survival.

Sea lettuce makes a great snack when you’re on the beach.

Understanding the definition of resilience is important because an ecosystem’s resiliency affects the ability of Alaska Natives and Hoonah citizens to live traditional subsistence lifestyles. Humans would have never been able to live off of the land if the environment around them wasn’t resilient. The diversity of an ecosystem heavily influences how resilient it is, therefore it’s best if we have diverse ecosystems. We can thank the resiliency of the coastal ecosystems around Hoonah not only for providing traditional subsistence resources, but for offering a reason for Heather’s students to be outside during the school day.


Written by Arianna Lapke, Americorps VISTA

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