Yoko Kugo

Yoko KugoPh.D. candidate 
Interdisciplinary studies: ethnogeography

Yoko Kugo is a student in the Arctic and Northern Studies Program working on her PhD in interdisciplinary studies. Her work focuses on the importance of Indigenous place names in understanding and supporting the relationships between people and their environment.  Kugo is truly a UA student, having come to UAF after completing her BA at UAS and an MA at UAA. During her MA studies she had begun working with Yup’ik communities around Iliamna Lake to study their traditional and contemporary lifestyles. During that work Elders in these communities shared their concern that their Yup’ik place names were in danger of being lost.

Yoko chose UAF as the best place to earn an interdisciplinary PhD degree that combines Alaska history, Yup’ik language, cultural anthropology, and geography. She has been working with the communities to document the Yup’ik names of places around the lake and understand what the names reveal about the history of the region and how the region has changed over time. Yoko has helped communities document Yup'ik place names that had rarely been recorded.

 Since beginning her PhD in 2016, Yoko has conducted eight ethnographic field trips to communities in the region.  She uses a community-based participatory approach and oral history methods to work with communities and build rapport with community members. Yoko photographs specific sites and then shares those photos with Elders as she interviews them.  In these interviews, Elders share stories about the sites and their names with her. The Iliamna Lake Elders have shared both their memories of the landscape and their family histories and so revealed their deep connections with their environment.  Hearing these stories about sites where she has stood has given Yoko a deeper sense of place. She will be grateful if her dissertation project affirms the residents’ memories and enables them to connect their web of oral knowledge with written stories and visual maps. Yoko plans to use similar approaches in other Alaska remote communities to record and revitalize their languages and sense of place.

 Her advice to incoming Ph.D. students is to focus on both learning how academia works and how to develop their own dissertation projects. If they already have identified a potential project when entering a Ph.D. program, they can begin seeking support by writing proposals when they first begin taking classes.  She encourages all students to network with colleagues, including undergraduate students.  She has learned much from teaching and mentoring undergraduates as part of her dissertation project.  She also urges "students to eat well and take a good walk every day when they can. Getting fresh air is so important when writing and reading in a small den."