By Joseph Robertia
Passing down traditions, teaching morals and explaining culture and history through myths and legends — there are many reasons Native cultures told and tell stories. While oral traditions are not as common as they once were, they are still important, as was clear during the Alaska Native Oratory Society’s seventh annual regional event, held Friday at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.
“It originally started after elders came forward and said, ‘We need to hear more stories from people finding their voices on matters important to them,’” said Diane Taylor, one of the organizers of this year’s event.
More of a celebration than a competition, the regional events — taking place in Soldotna, Anchorage and Southeast Alaska — feature several categories, including storytelling, commemorative narration, Native language story, humor, spoken word, new media and real-life stories.
Following a brief Native language prayer by George Holly and consumption of fry bread, moderator and Yup’ik storyteller Jack Dalton began the event with an explanation of this year’s theme, which was “Let your Spirit Speak: Finding Our Voices.”
Dalton said it was inspired by the actions of Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit civil-rights activist whose advocacy helped lead to the passage of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945.
“With the 70th anniversary of that act this year, and in honor of her, we thought we’d encourage people all across the state to let their spirits speak and to find their voices,” Dalton said.
This is tougher than it sounds, not only because more people fear public speaking than death, Dalton quipped, but also because Alaska Natives are not passing down their oral traditions as much as they once did.
“We used to be great orators and our young people are forgetting that,” he said.
This is tragic on many levels, Dalton said. When a language is lost, so, too, is a unique way of thinking and looking at the world.
Those who are actively working to keep the traditions alive are doing so in dynamic ways, since storytelling isn’t just done around a campfire anymore, as Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart demonstrated.
She serves as the Alaska Native student services coordinator and an adjunct Athabascan language teacher at KPC, and she used her time during the event to give a multimedia presentation of some of her students introducing themselves and telling stories in a Native tongue.
“Storytelling is done in many ways these days,” Dalton said.
Bunny Swan Gease, a Kenaitze Indian Tribe member, gave two presentations, a song and drum performance titled, “Ancient Voice, Future Vision,” and a humorous story involving puppets that shared the tale of when Raven fell in love with a snow goose and unsuccessfully attempted to fly south for the winter.
Marvin Kiokun, of Mekoryuk, told a more serious story with “Laws of Nature,” in which he acted out kayaking and stood on chairs to perform, as much as tell, his piece. It chronicled two Bering Sea hunters long before Western contact. They were taught many things by their elders, one of which was never leave a kayak for any reason.
However, one zealous hunter took a seal up on the ice and left his kayak to retrieve the kill. When he returned to the water, he found his kayak gone. For days he called for help, and eventually was saved, but still the moral was clear.
“Not listening to the elders and the laws of nature could cost you your life,” Kiokun said.
George Holly, from Holy Cross, played the drum and sang a song in his Native language called “Love Story for a Place,” and he suggested more people bring their minds to “this place.”
Several other speakers shared real-life stories, including Deborah Walunga, who spoke about hardship in her childhood growing up in Gambell. Since leaving the village, connecting with God and finding purpose, she said she hopes to return home to share her story with others.
“I’m hoping I can be a teacher or counselor so people can understand — what they’re going through, they’re not alone,” she said.
Phillip Kopanuk, of Hooper Bay, also told a personal story during his presentation, “God’s Amazing Grace.” To him these words are more than a song, they are something real that compels people to change their lives, he said.
He knows this from his own experiences. In his youth, drugs and alcohol afflicted him. He landed in jail and was kicked out of the military because of substance abuse, and the same affliction killed his sister. But religion helped straighten his life out.
“Because of God’s amazing grace, I’m sober today,” he said.
Hannah Armstrong, from Buckland, shared a story of her childhood, of alcoholism in her family, domestic violence and the death of her mother. Raised by her grandmother, a pastor, and most recently attending school at Alaska Christian College, Armstrong said that her relationship with God has also allowed her to find inner peace and courage.
“I’m not as afraid anymore,” she said. “I don’t live for the judgment of others, just for God.”
Dorothy Wagner, currently living in Nikiski but descending from the Navaho, told of the loss of her daughter and her family’s clan history.
Zoia Kernak, of Calista, also shared a story of loss. Assaulted by a family member as a child, she ended up in foster care. Years later she eventually located her birth father in Nebraska, but he died a week later from cancer.
Despite these hardships, she said that she was glad she used her voice when she needed to, to say when someone was hurting her and why it was important to find her blood relative, and, on Friday, to say what it all meant to her.
“I felt so blessed I finally spoke out,” she said.
Dalton used the real-life stories, and how difficult it was to share them, as examples of how the storytelling culture of Alaska Natives is changing with time.
“The turmoil of the last 150 years, not talking about it, is killing us,” he said. “We must talk about the bad things, and our young people are the ones figuring that out. They’re not talking to hurt, they’re talking to heal.”
Those who spoke Friday were invited to tell their stories to an even larger audience at the Alaska Native Oratory Society statewide event April 11 in Anchorage.