E-Commerce on Ice

In Arctic Village, Alaska, the winter days are dark and short; visitors are few. To pass the long hours, women in this community of 350 people on the Yukon River make gloves, moccasins and barrettes out of moose and caribou hide. They use designs passed down through generations of their Gwich’in Athabascan Indian ancestors.

Steven Dinero, a professor of human geography at Philadelphia University, visited Arctic Village and the neighboring town of Nulato to study how the people in this remote hamlet were adjusting to the transition from a nomadic, hunter-gather way of life to the settled existence of grocery stores and ATVs. He returned to bring e-commerce to the tundra.

“After studying these people academically,” Dinero said, “eventually I asked, ‘Is there not a way to take my work a step further and use some of what I’m learning in a more pragmatic way?'”

Armed with a $600,000 grant from National Science Foundation and a partnership with integrated telecommunications provider GCI.net, Dinero is leading a project that will connect the craftswomen of Arctic Village with the global marketplace.

Two years into the three-year project, Dinero and Tim McGee, Parimal Bhagat and Beth Mariotz, three Philadelphia University colleagues, plan to go live on October 1, 2005 with ArcticWays.com, an e-commerce site that will let shoppers acquire these rarely seen, hand-made items.

“We want this to be a showplace for Alaskan native culture in general,” Dinero said. “Everything will be made in bush Alaska.”

The e-commerce site is under development by professionals in Fairbanks. It will include not only a showcase of Athabascan crafts but also information about the culture and the community. The site will be marketed with Internet advertising and magazine ads initially targeting the U.S., Japan and Germany.

Connectivity for the project is provided by GCI.net. Beginning in 2004, the Alaskan company, which is the state’s largest provider of Internet services, began a project to provide dial-up Internet access to every household in Alaskan Native rural communities. The company is providing hardware, software, expertise and internships for the Arctic Ways project.

Dinero said he wasn’t worried about global demand outstripping local production during the holiday shopping season.

“A great deal of product is being made here,” he said. “You can’t imagine how much is given away as gifts. They can make things very quickly.”

While the team introduces Alaskan grandmothers to e-commerce, it’s also teaching their grandchildren computer and Internet technology skills. The NSF grant included funds to run computer camps focusing on e-commerce and web design for local high school students.

“We all talk about infotech as spaceless,” Dinero said, “how you can live and work anywhere, as long as you have connection to the Internet. Well, here in this little community on the Yukon River, we have kids creating Web sites.”

The goal is to find ways the Arctic Villagers can benefit from — and profit by — technology within their native culture.

The Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, a non-profit tribal organization based in Fort Yukon, Alaska, will operate ArcticWays.com. The non-profit will take a cut out of every transaction.

But conveying to the craftswomen that the transaction fees will be more than offset by increased sales due to wider distribution is another challenge, Dinero said. “Trying to explain to them about the global marketplace and information technologies and the Internet is not an easy thing. They live in a different world.”

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