Leaders young and old from around the region are gathering in Nome this week for community events, workshops and speaker sessions at the Kawerak Leadership Summit.
KNOM’s Gabe Colombo visited the conference Tuesday for the keynote address.
Keynote speaker Jorie Ayyu Paoli opens her address in Inupiaq. Not ten minutes later, attendees are already teary-eyed as she wonders out loud about her great-grandmother’s interactions with the first Covenant Church missionaries:
“When they came into our community, what were they thinking? Did they come in and love us so much? Were they so enamored with our way that they knew that this was the home they wanted to be part of? Did they see our knowledge and our culture as ways to help enrich the teachings that they were bringing?”
With questions like these, Paoli bridges past and present in an address equal parts personal history and call to action. Originally from Unalakleet — which in Inupiaq is called Uŋalaqłiq — she now serves as vice president and indigenous operations director at the First Alaskans Institute.
With representatives from several Alaska Native groups present, Paoli touches on the theme of cross-cultural understanding with a story about Uŋalaqłiq’s Native songs. She said she’d grown up believing that they’d been lost during the missionaries’ cultural suppression. But in a chance encounter, she discovered that three women from the community had moved to Kaltag to be married, and that the songs had been preserved in a sort of “Athabaskanized Inupiaq.”
“I can tell you how much it meant to me to find out that our songs and dances are alive. And I can’t imagine our community ever wanting to take away from others what has been taken away from us.”
Paoli’s positive outlook carries over into her discussion of the present and its challenges.
“For those of us who don’t have that knowledge of our language, of our traditions, that can bring a lot of shame and embarrassment. But what I say to you, that I hope all of our people can feel and know, is that that shame, that guilt, doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to those who took it from us.”
She urges Native communities to be true to their identity, to revive traditions in ways that aren’t bound by modern, Western frameworks like strategic plans or grants.
Paoli finishes with a metaphor she’d heard from a friend in Kaltag:
“He said, ‘Our community — we’re like the willow. You can cut the willow down, you can cut it back, to try and get rid of it, but if there’s even a shred of root, it will re-grow and thrive.’”
Aaron Nusuk is enthusiastic about Paoli’s message. He’s here from Koyuk to attend the conference.
“Not the usual rhetorics (sic) about how we gotta work together. It’s good to hear. This is stuff that needs to be said, and more often, to more people.”
Another person who seems to feel the same way is Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott, who is Tlingit. He takes the podium after Paoli receives a standing ovation.
“I’m still shaking, Ayyu, I still am, from your words,” he says.
Mallot has some inspirational words of his own, asking that attendees of the conference believe their actions now can have an impact. 100 years in the future, he says:
“We will have had four or five Native governors, a majority of them women. We will be in a place where Alaska Native art, where our spirituality, where the lives we lead are respected and celebrated, and there is certainty in our society and public policy that we are here to stay.”
That confidence is on display in Paoli’s speech, which she closes with an Uŋalaqłiq song she says she learned as a way to heal.
And now, Paoli says, she’s also teaching it to her kids.
Image at top: Jorie Ayyu Paoli receives a standing ovation after her keynote speech. (Photo: Gabe Colombo, KNOM, 2017)