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What Obama's visit meant to me: Reflections of an Alaskan who works at the White House

  • Author: Raina Thiele
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 12, 2015

My ancestors have occupied the lands known as Alaska for over 10,000 years. Our traditions are steeped in history and intimately connected with the land and its natural resources. One month ago, President Barack Obama made a historic and unprecedented three-day trip to Alaska and I had the honor and privilege to accompany him. Looking back, I'm blown away by the fact this was the first time a sitting president has ever visited rural Alaska and traveled above the Arctic Circle. As an Alaska Native who was born and raised in the state, the president's trip was uniquely moving for me. I was fortunate enough to witness a moment in history. A moment we may never see again in our lifetimes.

I grew up in a pretty uniquely "Alaskan" way. My summers were spent subsistence and commercial fishing for wild salmon, salmon that depended on the health of the environment to flourish. In my mother's small Dena'ina Athabascan village, I'd help her and my grandmother fillet and smoke salmon for the winter in the traditional Dena'ina way. Other summers I spent commercial fishing in Bristol Bay with my Dad on a salmon gillnet boat. Whether for subsistence or economic reasons, salmon and other natural resources were the lifeblood of my family, and the same stands true for many of Alaska's people.

Reflecting on my life thus far, it was Alaska's land and natural resources, coupled with the strong Dena'ina and Yup'ik cultural values instilled in me by my parents and grandparents—humility, hard work, generosity -- that have allowed me to make it as far as I have in life. I often joke I was fortified by a diet of moose, salmon, and berries and I would probably survive a zombie apocalypse with my Bear Grylls-style survival skills. But these natural resources do more than just fortify the body, they fortify the spirit, and are essential to cultures that have thrived for millennia. My connection to my Athabascan and Yup'ik roots is the well from which I draw strength when faced with obstacles that would be otherwise insurmountable. And it's this grounding, along with the guidance of my parents and grandparents, which has allowed me to make the journey from rural Alaska, as a first-generation college kid, to the Ivy League and, most recently, to the White House.

This is why accompanying my boss, my president, Barack Obama, to Alaska was the proudest moment of my life. Hands down. And why it was such a privilege to be part of the White House team that helped orchestrate the trip from A to Z. The fact Obama cared to see a piece of Alaska typically shrouded from view by remoteness and a lack of accessibility, and he was able to witness firsthand why Alaska's natural resources are worth protecting filled me with hope. And it filled Alaskans with hope. Hope that our futures, our cultures, our lifeways, have been noticed and valued as an essential part of the intricate and majestic tapestry that is America. For that, I would like to say thank you. Thank you to Alaskans for giving our president the warmest welcome imaginable. And thank you to my president, Barack Obama, for prioritizing the preservation of our way of life.

Raina Thiele works at the White House as associate director of intergovernmental affairs and public engagement and as the liaison for tribes and the American Indian and Alaska Native community. She earned her bachelor's degree from Yale College and her master's degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Born and raised in Alaska, she is Dena'ina Athabascan and Yup'ik and has family ties to the communities of Pedro Bay and Alexander Creek.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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