Preserving Alaska’s native culture

Native Student Council, one of the UAA’s cultural organizations, focuses on community engagement, volunteering and collaboration. Through numerous events, they aid in the preservation and spread of Alaska Native culture.

Nearly every Alaska Native group is recognized in the council, from Yupik and Athabaskan, to Haida. Some Lower 48 tribes are also included, as well as non-natives and groups from countries outside of the United States. The Native Student Council is inclusive to anyone who wants to join, focusing on togetherness.

Local dancers perform for the audience during the 2016 Giving Thanks Dance Festival. Members of UAA’s Native Student Union volunteer at the event each year. Photo credit: Native Student Union

“We create a home away from home,” Aaron Tolen, anthropology major and president of the NSC, said. “It’s a place to come for information, but also to meet new people and make new friends that share an interest in the culture. We work to make students feel welcomed.”

From Inupiaq and Tlingit background, Tolen grew up very involved with Alaska Native culture in Nome and Ketchikan. He joined the council four years ago, working his way up to the president position, which he’s held for two years. He runs many of the events that the NSC puts on.

Aside from their biweekly meetings, the NSC host cultural events, one being dance groups. They feature volunteer community members from different regions of Alaska, who teach traditional songs and dances. Although the dance lessons are not currently offered due to schedule conflicts, the club hopes to have them up and running soon.

“They’re fun when we’re doing them, and I believe structure would help us gain ground and people,” Tolen said. “People who were not already a member of the NSC joined after participating in the dances. They promote engaged native culture on campus.”

The biggest event the NSC puts on is their annual dance festival and potluck the week before Thanksgiving. The event features performances from up to five native dance groups from around Alaska. The festival is open to the public, and includes prizes and free food. Attendance has increased from years past, reaching as many as 500 people. The event has become so large that native corporations such as the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Cook Inlet Region, Inc. have taken interest in getting involved.

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The NSC is also involved with various community events, including both the Native Youth and Junior Olympics, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Elders and Youth Conference and regalia shows, or fashion show-like events that showcase traditional Native clothing. These events help members of the council give back to the community.

“I joined NSC because I loved being involved and helping the native community. I have always wanted to do something that can make a change,” Sierra Daugherty, former president of the Native Student Council, said. “It is all a team effort, nothing is done by oneself.”

Daugherty, from Alutiiq and Aleut background, was a part of the club for three years, one as president. Although she is no longer an active member, she still enjoys volunteering occasionally due to the long lasting friendships she created.

Community involvement has created a lot of opportunities for members of the council to get involved and positively represent their native culture. Olivia Shields, elementary education major, joined NSC in 2012. She held positions as a regular member, president and co-chair of the club.

Although she is currently an inactive member of the council, Shields is holding a position as Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics, and participating in the Miss Indian World pageant. These commitments allow her to share the culture she was fortunate enough to grow up around to others who did not have that privilege. Shields also believes that native people are often negatively stereotyped in the media. Through her duties, she wishes to shed a more positive light on Alaska Natives.

“Not everyone had the opportunity to learn their language, culture, dances and songs like I did,” Shields said. “ It’s important for Alaska Native people to see someone from their culture being successful and carrying on the cultural traditions and language. My position as Miss WEIO and participation in the Miss Indian World pageant have opened doors for me to reach more people.”

Shields is a very active member in the Anchorage community and beyond. Under her titles, she attends cultural events, visits local schools, creates YouTube videos for educational purposes, hosts and participates in dance workshops, both in Alaska and the Lower 48, and volunteers in UAA native programs.

“It’s been a lifelong journey of culture and language maintenance efforts,” Shields said. “It’s helped me as a person.”

The NSC meets every other Friday at 5 p.m. The location varies between the Cama-i Room in the Gorsuch Commons, The Native Student Services Lab in Rasmuson Hall, room 108 and the Professional Studies Building, room 214 B.

Updates on the specific meeting locations, as well as other events and information are posted on their Facebook page, UAA Native Student Council.