By Joseph Robertia
Storytelling. Whether around a campfire or around the dinner table, talking, telling tales and verbally exchanging ideas have been part of the human experience for as long as humans have used spoken language.
In part of celebrating the richness of oral traditions here, the Alaska Native Oratory Society held its fifth annual regional gathering last week at Alaska Christian College. Natives and non-Natives came together to speak publicly on a variety of topics important or meaningful to them.
The soft-spoken Alice Pauline, originally from Hooper Bay, led off the evening with a presentation about leaving past hardships of her village behind, and what it was like to travel from the tiny coastal community to larger and more populated areas in the Lower 48, specifically Iowa.
“If you ever have to travel with Natives to the Lower 48, I think you’ll have fun, especially if it’s their first time,” she joked about how overwhelming it all was at first.
However, getting away from all that was familiar helped her to better understand the things that had happened in her life.
“It changed me as a person, helped me see things for what they are … you see a bigger picture,” she said.
Phillip Kopanuk, also originally of Hooper Bay, shared a deeply personal story about how his life changed forever on Nov. 21, 2012, after he had gotten a call from his sister, Minnie, who had been drinking heavily.
He picked up his sibling, but not long afterward she passed out, her hands and lips turned purple and clear liquid began to drain from her mouth. He called 911 and she was rushed to the hospital, but she passed away.
“(It) made me realize that not everyone gets a chance to wake up and ask God to forgive them. My sister didn’t,” he said.
But Kopanuk said that he believes God used that loss of a loved one to reach out to him, to save him from potentially succumbing to the same fate.
“I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior that night, and asked him to take away my desire to drink and do drugs, and as I asked him, I could feel the desire to do both leave me,” he said. “God used my sister’s death to reach out to me and pull me back to him.”
Steve Schoonmaker, of Kasilof, used the venue to share a poem, “Illusions of Separateness,” with numerous environmental tones and couched using subjects near and dear to many Alaskans’ hearts — salmon, fishing for them, as well as quarreling over them.
“… Those illusions of separateness that we exist on our own. Contained in our bodies outside all we’ve known. Dividing up nature until we’re divided alone. At the top of some food chain that we’ll conquer and own. It’s an illusion of separateness,” read one passage from the poem.
Cylde Ahgnaniak Morry, originally from near Anaktuvuk Pass, also used the venue to speak to environmental issues close to his heart and his old home.
“Caribou come into the valley like a tsunami … it’s never-ending,” he said, but was quick to add the proposed development in the area could bring it to an end, or alter it at the very least.
He is worried a proposed 100-mile road from the Dalton Highway to Umiat could negatively impact the wildlife habitat and subsistence resources, as well as bringing an influx of sportsmen who could further overhunt or overfish these resources.
He implored everyone to check out, via the Internet, “The Road to Umiat,” to become more informed about the project.
Josephine Daniels, from Golovin, spoke on the topic of bullying. She used examples of all the different wild animals around her village, and that while all are distinctly different from each other, they were unique in their own way, much like people.
“With different talents, and strengths, and personalities, weight, skin color, rich or poor, or different nationalities — we all have value,” she said.
Daniels said being bullied in her own life made her feel inferior, and she’s known others who were bullied that developed eating disorders, became addicted to alcohol, or even attempted suicide.
“The old saying, sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, just isn’t true,” she said.
Instead, Daniels said she prefers a saying from Native elders, from which she believed more people could learn.
“Our elders taught us to live in harmony, with the land and each other,” she said.
Eugene Stevens II was also no stranger to hardship. He shared past pain involving abuse he suffered as a child, and how heavy that burden was to carry alone. Not long after his 20th birthday he attempted suicide by drug overdose.
“When I woke up in the hospital, I asked God why he would do this to me,” he said.
But over time, he went through counseling and embraced the values of the church, and learned to live with his past; focusing instead on his future.
“I want people to see there is hope in this life,” he said.
Sawyer Gillilan lightened the mood with his story about how the Dena’ina got their first song from the raven. Thomas Alakayak gained even more laughs when he used the gathering for humor specifically. He told a story in his native tongue of Yupik, and brought up an unsuspecting volunteer, Ryan Richert, from the audience who didn’t speak Yupik to translate as best he could.
After a long string of Yupik by Alakayak, a bewildered Richert began with, “It was a dark and stormy night,” which got many giggling in the audience.
“I had no clue what he was saying,” Richert confessed after it was over. “I just tried to pick up on any body language I could.”
Jason Battiest, a Choctaw from the Southeastern U.S., also told an anecdotal story about how the raven got black, as well as a more serious story titled “Conflicted Decisions.”
The next AkNOS event will be a statewide celebration, at the University of Alaska Anchorage on April 20. More information is available online at: www.uaa.alaska.edu/native/aknos/index
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