Miss Alaska USA Alyssa London, Tlingit, has ties to the state she represents but grew up in the Seattle area. And on June 17, she returns to the Emerald City to speak at the Urban Native Education Alliance’s 10th annual Rites of Passage Graduation Ceremony.
Her message: Be proud and confident in your identity. There is power in education. And it’s important to pursue and carry traditional knowledge in today’s world.
The ceremony, which honors Native students graduating from middle school and high school, begins at 5:30 p.m. June 17 at Nathan Hale High School, Seattle. (Nathan Hale is in the city’s 5th Council District, which is represented by Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, the first enrolled Native American elected to the Seattle City Council.)
The master of ceremonies will be Ryan Wilson, Oglala Lakota, president of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages. Guest speakers will include Scott Pinkham, Nez Perce, the first enrolled Native American elected to the Seattle School Board.
London, who was profiled at ICMN on March 8, is a graduate of Stanford University and is an entrepreneur, motivational speaker, radio talk show host and cultural ambassador for Sealaska Heritage Institute. As Miss Alaska USA, she is promoting the empowerment of women through entrepreneurship, and challenging limiting beliefs among Native youth.
“I am going to talk about the importance of community and drawing on them for strength,” London said on June 12, adding she may wear the robe Sealaska Heritage Institute lent to her from the Worl family at the beginning of her tenure as Miss Alaska USA.
“I will also discuss the importance of being proud and confident in your identity and my journey of getting to that point. I’ll talk about the power of attaining an education, and how it opens doors for reaching career and professional goals in life. Finally, I will touch on the importance of pursuing cultural/traditional knowledge and blending it with today's modern world.”
She said she hopes the students are proud of their accomplishments during the school year and for graduating, and she wants them to continue to pursue their education “but to always remember who they are, and to think about ways to support and give back to their community in the future. I’d like them to remember to be resilient and strong and that their community is always behind them 100 percent ready to lift them up and help them be successful.”
UNEA President Sarah Sense-Wilson. Oglala Lakota, said London’s story is one many Urban Indian students can relate to. London grew up in a Seattle suburb, and had identity issues common to those who are disconnected from their ancestral homelands and from traditional foods and cultural and spiritual practices.
That disconnect “is a real barrier to healthy cultural identity formation,” Sense-Wilson said. “Alyssa recognizes how impactful it is to have strong ties with community and she credits the Native community for [her] achieving Miss Alaska and top 10 in Miss USA.”
She added, “Alyssa really embodies our organization’s core values: Integrity, Interconnectedness, Service and Community. We are all very excited to have her as keynote presenter, as well as Ryan Wilson as master of ceremonies. Ryan has an extensive career in advocating for Indian Education [and] language immersion learning, and is also co-founder of IWASIL, the first Urban Indian Boys and Girls Club in Seattle. Ryan has served as elected board member and president of the National Indian Education Association, as well as many other prominent positions locally, regionally and nationally. This will be one of our highlights of the decade. We are so proud of our Native learners, families, volunteers, and community members for making this event possible.”
UNEA presents regular cultural and athletic programs for Native youth, and will soon move its programs from Nathan Hale to the new Robert Eagle Staff Middle School, which was built on the site of the old American Indian Heritage High School. UNEA was based at Indian Heritage high school until it as demolished to make way for the new middle school.
The City of Seattle is named for Si’ahl, the 19th century leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples who signed the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855, making a large swath of Western Washington available for non-Native settlement. The Duwamish Tribe is headquartered here, near the site of the ancestral village of ha-AH-poos, but the Duwamish are not federally recognized.
Of the city’s 654,000 residents in 2015, 3.1 percent were Native American, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian, according to the U.S. Census. Another 3.9 percent are of Mexican ancestry, many of whom identify as Indigenous (Council member Juarez is Blackfeet and Mexican. Another council member, Lorena Gonzalez, is Mexican American).
Of the Seattle Public Schools’ student population, one percent are Indigenous – Native American, Alaska Native, or Pacific Islander, according to data on the Seattle Public Schools website. Twelve percent are of Mexican ancestry. Some of the 10 percent who identify as “multiracial” claim Native ancestry.