After spending years down south studying for an aerospace degree, Alice Qannik Glenn returned home to Alaska. She planned to stay for a while and save up before going back to school. Instead, she found herself on a different path in the world of podcasting. She created her own podcast, in part to share culturally relevant information and also to fill gaps in the presentation of Alaska Native issues and communities she saw in the popular media. Called “Coffee & Quaq,” it now has a loyal following and is broadcast in different parts of the state. Glenn spoke to The Arctic Sounder and this is a portion of that interview.
Q: First of all, can you tell me a little about your own background?
A: I was born and raised in Utqiaġvik and I’m the second oldest of four daughters. My parents are Richard Savik Glenn and Arlene Iqiḷan Glenn. My sisters are Patuk, Roberta and Joanne. ... I graduated from Barrow High School.
After I graduated, I ended up going to an aerospace university, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, in Arizona. Then, later on, I transferred to another campus in Florida. I majored in aerospace studies with a focus in aerospace life sciences, space studies and math. I graduated in 2014. I kind of was hanging around down south for about a year after I graduated. I was working as a hostess at a restaurant. ...
Throughout that time I was in school I did six internships at NASA. Five of my internships were done at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and then one in Houston at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. That was awesome. That was like the dream. I only graduated with my bachelor's, so I didn't have such a huge expertise. I didn't have my master's, so I didn't get to progress any further in any of the internship opportunities that I had. And I thought it was just a really great time for me to come back home. ...
I thought that I would move back home, not necessarily straight back to Barrow but definitely here in Anchorage and work for a little bit. I was planning on working for two years before I would go back, save up some money to do my master's program in human factors of aerospace studies, but that didn't really happen. I came back and I worked for my village corporation — UIC (and) Umiaq Environmental as an environmental specialist in the permitting department. ...
(When I was in Florida,) I got to see some launches. I saw the space shuttle launch — I think three of them. And I got to see one landing and that was amazing. And I got to see them from as close as you can get safety.
Q: What was it like for you there? Can you share about that experience?
A: I did a presentation in 2017 at this space conference. It’s called Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress. And the title of my presentation was “Long-term human spaceflight: What NASA can learn from the Iñupiat’s way of living, working and thriving in the Arctic.” And I opened that presentation up with a little bit of the culture and the social norms at NASA and how I was a little bit uncomfortable with it. I kind of had doubts about myself as a Native woman trying to work at NASA. I felt like a fish out of water. I was living in Florida. I’m from Utqiaġvik. It was so hot there. I didn’t understand the people very well and they made fun of the way I spoke. And I also feel like there’s this culture of the good old boys. I felt like it was all the Apollo-era dudes, really old, white and just very conservative. So, it was a little bit of a challenge to feel welcome and taken seriously there.
So, I opened with a little story like what could a Native girl ever contribute to the space program and then I go into the similarities of long-term spaceflight and living in the Arctic. There's a lot of experiments and simulations of these long-term spaceflight missions. They'll put people in a Hab (habitation module) in the desert or even in the Arctic, just to see how people react in a small, isolated and confined space. But it's like, hello, people have been living in the Arctic for thousands of years. You don't have to reinvent the wheel right now. You just go to where these people live and figure out what's working for the Iñupiat.
If you look at the Arctic from an outsider’s point of view it looks like this vast, untouched, almost dead (space), it’s so cold and there’s nothing. People see that. But it’s definitely not that to the Iñupiat. There’s some perceived similarities in that sense. It was kind of my answer to what NASA can learn from the Iñupiat. I kind of found identity and married it with my education in that prevention, so that was really cool.
Q: What did you do when you came back?
A: I came back with a little bit more of open eyes and open ears and an open heart, really. I was noticing all these things in the news, even here locally, of things happening in our rural communities. And it never seemed to be anything good. It never seemed to be anything happy, exciting, not many proud moments. But, here I am, a Native woman who grew up in rural Alaska and I hold so much pride in that. I hold so much pride in who I am as an Iñupiaq woman. I didn’t see any of that brilliance. I didn’t see any of that excitement or love, just good positive feelings in the news of our people. It was just kind of shocking to me because even in our home state — we’ve been here for so long, as Native people — but we’re still getting the short end of the stick on all this coverage, really. So, I’m reading the news and I’m feeling these emotions and it doesn’t line up with my experience with Native people, everything I’m seeing and reading.
That's why I was so excited for this fellowship opportunity at Rasmuson Foundation that I was sent an email or a brochure about. It was a philanthropy position. ... I ended up really taking a liking to the message of what this fellowship was for. It's called the Momentum Fellowship and it was designed to prepare professionals from underrepresented communities for careers in philanthropy. ...
That was when this idea for my podcast actually came to be. I was reconnecting with family, friends, culture and I didn’t realize how much I was missing it until I moved back.
Q: How did that become the start of your podcast?
A: I’m actively seeking out all of these people that I can hang out with to get back into that mindset or hear their concerns or talk to them about what’s in the news, just to see their opinions. So, I would have these really in-depth, rich conversations with fellow Alaska Natives. ... I would always walk away from these conversations thinking that was just a gold nugget. I wish I could just put that in my pocket and take it with me everywhere I go and bust it out in other conversations I have with people. So, I just got this idea to do it. ...
Essentially, I just wanted to create a podcast that had culturally relevant information in it so I wouldn’t have to always question that. Because you can’t Google those things. That’s the cool part of our culture. You can’t Google things. But, it’s also not that cool that you can’t Google things. I just did this post the other day about how I wish I could Google how to cut up fish quaq, like how do you cut it open, how do you stay away from the bones? But I also think it’s cool that it’s not available on Google, because you have to call someone or do it in person or be forced to ask your mom and dad or your Elders or someone to help you with that. ...
There's so many cool things that are happening right now in our state with young thinkers, doers, change makers. There's language revitalization. There's this idea and concept of decolonization and what does that mean for Alaska Native people? There's this recognition of the disparities in our communities like missing and murdered indigenous women and other things like food sovereignty. It's just an untapped wealth of information. It's fun and maybe hard to talk about at times, but also part of our culture is to have humor with it, too. ...
I feel so lucky to hear these stories. ... It felt like the right thing for me to do. I never really felt like I knew what I was doing with my life until I started my podcast, which is kind of scary because I’m 30 now. But I really felt strongly about it and I felt like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing when I started. That’s when I kind of knew — holy cow, did I just figure out what I’m supposed to do?
Q: How has it been for you to juggle everything?
A: Just a couple of weeks ago, I felt like I had so many things going on. I’m trying to juggle so many tasks. I’m trying to work on my podcasts, do these presentations, participate in panel discussions, get the word out for a new episode and do my job full time which is no slouch. And I just had a breakdown. I just was so exhausted and I just at that point decided to leave my job at Rasmuson and I got tattoos.
I did what any well-meaning Inuit millennial would do and I got tattoos. This is my first tattoo. I've never had them before. But I had been thinking about it ever since my first episode, like if I ever got traditional Inuit tattoos, what would they be? Holly (Nordlum) is amazing. If you go see her, she'll talk you through it and we just had a long discussion. I'm nervous and I'm coming off of this stress-induced mental breakdown. She was like, don't worry, just keep working, just keep doing it, get it out. We did my tattoos. She did a hand poke tattoo on my cheeks, four dots on each side. And she's like try to envision your stress and your anxiety leaving your body with every poke that I'm doing. And I was like, OK. And it worked. I was like dang, I really understand why people get tattoos. It's this cathartic experience. There's some kind of externalizing your inner pain to your outer pain that felt really good.
And I had learned a little bit about some of the Inuit tattoos and what they represent. The traditional meaning for the cheek tattoos — there’s so many interpretations, but some of the ones that I found out was to ward off evil spirits, to promote fertility and then tattoos were just given in pressure points or points of pain. And for me, though, what they represent to me is just freedom. Freedom from Western beauty ideals and freedom from the stresses of work. I just really needed a grounding in why I was doing Coffee and Quaq and how I shouldn’t get so caught up in the things I can’t really change. ... It’s funny that the tattoos are known to promote fertility because anyone who knows me knows I don’t want to have kids. I love Joseph, my partner’s 5-year-old. I love him so much. But I don’t want to go through the whole process of pregnancy and having a baby — that’s terrifying to me. But I feel like my episodes are like, I get so stressed out about them that I have labor pains. I wish I could just push this baby out and put it into the world and move on. So, I think it’s kind of funny in that sense. That’s where I am today.
Q: Is there a space that you feel your podcast fills?
A: It was really surprising for me because I really just wanted a cool outlet. There is Native programming on the radio and on TV and that kind of thing, but I just felt like it’s all old. It’s all ’80s, ’90s style, very feel good, very don’t shake things up, don’t ask the wrong questions. I think there has been some romanticizing of our culture too, in that sense, in that you can’t question things anymore. It’s the way that it’s always been done, so don’t ask. I think that the current media covering Alaska Native life is reflecting that part. Obviously I hold that to the highest regard too, to respect tradition, respect culture, respect Elders and do what I’m told. But I’m also naturally curious, too.
I'm naturally pensive about why things are done the way they are, about how this lines up with our Iñupiaq values? Does it line up? I think that the media that I was consuming just wasn't culturally relevant and it wasn't cool. I wanted it to be cool and reflective of who I am as a person today — as an Iñupiaq today. At first I didn't really know what I was going to be doing but I definitely wanted it to be toward a younger demographic. ...
There’s content out there but it didn’t ever seem engaging, compelling, provocative, controversial or really interesting to me because it was adhering to that age of over-romanticizing ancestors, “time immemorial,” on a pedestal almost, like it’s untouchable. But what about me? I’m just as Iñupiaq as our ancestors were but it’s just a different time and a different age and I wanted to reflect that and I wanted it to be digestible and consumable by people like me. If I wasn’t seeing myself in the media that I was consuming, I wanted to create that. ...
I really just wanted to spark discussion. So, if someone disagrees, I’m happy to (talk about that). We’re stronger together if we put our heads together, if we speak about these things together, then we can challenge each other or we can support each other and either way, we’ll know more.
Q: Why is it important to you to bring millennial Native voices to this space?
A: I think it’s super important for me because it seems to me that all of the media that I’m consuming or that I see, it feels like we’re either left out of media altogether, there’s these egregious stereotypes ... so all the media that I see we’re either typecast, stereotyped, left out of the media, or romanticized by our ancestry and how Eskimos used to exist in the past and we can’t ever get past that.
There’s just a lot of ignorance and miseducation about who we are as people. That can be kind of damaging. It’s important to me because I would like to see myself, my culture, my being, I just want to see that in the media. When you don’t see yourself in these bigger pictures, you’re invisible. It’s almost like nobody cares about you. It’s a misrepresentation of who we are and those kinds of things can really hurt our communities as Native people, especially invisibility. So, it’s important for me because I want to change that narrative.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.