NMAI ceremony and week in Washington honor young writers

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WASHINGTON - Five young Native writers were the occasion June 26 for an honoring ceremony in the Potomac Atrium of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Circled by vacationing onlookers, elders, teachers, officials, photographers, family, friends and a few rows of faces looking down from the galleried upper floors, the young women spoke in a variety of voices, from the very serious tone of the oldest among them to the almost skate-along light touches of the younger, impressing a public of 50 or so as their writing had the judges at Holland & Knight, the Washington law firm that sponsored the essay contest.

Each received an expenses-paid week in Washington that included educational programs, specialized tours and a writing seminar with Shaunna McCovey, Yurok/Karuk, and Tim Tingle, Choctaw, as well as a college scholarship ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.

One can;t help but wonder how much a part of their prize will also turn out to be attending NMAI's beautiful ''Identity by Design'' exhibit on Native dresses and dressmaking, which doubles as a meditation on gendered contributions to tribal culture and communities.

''I know we can't forget the past,'' said Alyssa London, Tlingit. But before her trip to Washington, ''I didn't know how much there was to be done now.''

Jalea Walker, Yurok/Smith River Tolowa/Hupa/Tutuni from Hoopa, Calif., spoke of the impact of the boarding school era on her peoples, scattered from their homes and cultures by the cruel history of California. She is learning the Yurok and Karuk languages.

Simone Greenleaf, Chippewa, saluted her culture's survival through the Great Depression, World War II, and the termination and assimilation eras, into a time of self-determination.

Stormy Sagmoen, Dena'ina Athabascan, paid a foster child's incomparable tribute to ''the positive side to the foster care system.''

Their prize-winning essays can be accessed on the Holland & Knight Web site, www.indian.hklaw.com/ESSAYS/2008/index.asp.