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Alaska Native storytelling event embraces technology as 'new tool'

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 11, 2015

While the speakers at an annual Alaska Native storytelling event on Saturday stuck with traditional forms of oration, the added category of "new media" offered glimpses of change in their cultural expression.

"I think every village, city and town has a few elders … If you don't find too many elders, learn what you can, listen deeply and become the elder that your community needs," said keynote speaker Ishmael Angaluuk Hope.

Hope, whose heritage includes Tlingit and Inupiaq, is known as a Native writer, poet and playwright. More recently, he worked on the video game "Never Alone" as a writer and helped ensure the accuracy of its source material.

The theme of Saturday's event was "Let Your Spirit Speak: Finding Our Voices." The University of Alaska Anchorage's Alaska Native studies director, Maria Shaa Tlaa Williams, said the theme focused on allowing the state's indigenous peoples to discuss their identities, or "spirits."

The event featured orators from UAA, Kenai Peninsula College and the Lower Kuskokwim School District. The participants offered humorous stories about fishing with elders and lessons from elders told in Yup'ik.

Williams said she was particularly excited about the additional category because technology offers young people a new way to express their ideas and share their culture.

Williams said nearly 40 percent of the Alaska Native population is younger than 19.

"This is happening right now," she said. "My view is that indigenous people are very good with tools, and that's why we've survived for so long. And technology is just a new tool. It's not culture-specific. You make it culture-specific."

UAA freshman Ivana Ash had planned to present her work on a Sugstun language application but was traveling to Kodiak on Saturday. The Alutiiq people of southern coastal Alaska speak Sugstun.

"The app gives contextual information about the language, so it goes a little deeper than a dictionary," Williams said.

And discussion has moved online as UAA graduate student Maria Crouch is leading a research study of attitudes about Natives. Crouch's handout about the study included a smartphone QR code to direct participants to the 30-minute questionnaire.

The survey will increase awareness of Native experiences, Crouch said.

Student Crystalynn Lemiux was the first speaker to share her experience with the small crowd gathered in a lecture hall at the university's Fine Arts Building. Her speech was titled "When I became aware."

Hailing from the southeastern village of Angoon, Lemiux now identifies herself as a proud member of the Deisheetaan clan. That wasn't always the case, she said.

"I didn't feel comfortable with being Native," she said.

When Lemiux arrived at UAA, she viewed the Alaska Native courses through a "Western lens," she said. She luckily had less shy students encourage her to visit the university's Alaska Native Language Center.

As the encouragement continued, she said she realized the importance of asking difficult questions about her culture. She thanked her mentors and fellow students.

"I wouldn't be here," Lemiux said. "I wouldn't finally be fine with being Native."

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