Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Surveys show about a third of American workers are not satisfied with their jobs. However, career changes are hard to pull off, especially if there’s a big pay cut involved.

Evon Peter, of Fairbanks, Alaska, recently walked away from one form of success to follow his vision of a revitalized Gwich’in Athabascan language, and with the hope of being more true to his Neets'aii Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan roots.

In 1999, at age 24, Peter was the youngest person ever elected to be the chief of Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ (Arctic Village), a Gwich’in community in northeast Alaska near the Canadian border.

There, he lived close to nature, hunting, fishing and gathering food from the land.

He said starting in 2004, he took a “deep dive” into Western society and academia.

“Early on,” Peter said, “I recognized that working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., much of the time in an office and sitting there and either staring at a computer and working on it, or just sitting there talking with people on the phone or in meetings all day was just not healthy.”

He led culture camp and other programs promoting youth leadership and prevention of suicide, abuse and violence. In 2014, he became vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There, he worked to make the university a global center for applied Indigenous studies and knowledge.

However, “I began to notice how it wasn't only my physical health that was being impacted by working at that type of job and living in the system. It was my mental health, my emotional health. And it's like my spirit wasn't being nourished in the way that it needed to be,” Peter said.

“The whole way the Western work week and structure is built is in conflict with our traditional ways of life as Native people,” he said. “But it's also in conflict with nature. Human beings just aren’t meant to be stagnant for eight hours of every single day and indoors the whole time and not engaging in a relationship with the natural world around us.”

In 2021, after Evon Peter left a high-level position in academia, he and his family built their "biggest smokehouse ever,' and spent weeks catching, preparing, and smoking and drying salmon. (Photo by Nanieezh Peter, courtesy of Evon Peter)

He also didn’t want to be part of moving Indigenous people into a system where they would “end up having to live the life that I was living. Because I was very stressed out, overworked, had anxiety and wasn't able to get out on the land for hunting and fishing or for ceremony like I would have liked to,” Peter said.

Last fall on a five-day hunting trip, while watching a flowing river in Alaska, he remembered a 1999 trip to New Zealand where he learned about “language nests,” or early childhood language immersion programs. He was inspired by the Maori’s cultural Renaissance.

“When I came home (from New Zealand), I began to talk about and want to try to get language nests and language revitalization happening here in our Gwich’in community,” Peter said.

He wanted to work toward an educational system that uplifts Indigenous language and knowledge, and creates jobs that “would also enable (young people) to continue to practice and be who they are as Gwich’in people.”

At the riverside, he noted it had been 21 years since his trip to New Zealand.

“I realized, ‘wow, in another 21 years, I'll be 65.’” He didn’t want to find himself again sitting on a riverbank on a 4- or 5-day hunting trip, “and still be in this place of having only talked about creating an educational system that is taught through the Gwich'in language and that teaches our traditional stories and philosophy, knowledge, and ways of life and practices,” Peter said.

A few months later, on Jan. 2, 2021, he left his job as vice chancellor. He and others created Tanan Ch’at’oh, a Gwich'in language nest where instructors teach Gwich’in through games and every-day activities, “I spend all my time playing with two- and three-year-olds fully immersed in our language,” Peter said, which is “really enjoyable and fun and relaxing.”

Also, he said “My freezers and my mom's freezers have never been so full of Native food because I prioritize getting out on the land to hunt and fish.

“And we built one of the biggest smoke houses our family's ever had, in our backyard. We just got done smoking over a hundred fish and giving that to our family and to others. And, so just on a cultural practice level, I'm now able to spend more time doing what we do as Native people, in relationship to subsistence on the land.”

At left: Dr. Trimble Gilbert, Gilbert, who was born in 1935, is the traditional chief of the Neets’aii Gwich’in people in his birthplace of Arctic Village. He is shown here on May 8, 2016, the day he  received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He lives a traditional subsistence lifestyle, and is a mentor and teacher to then-University of Alaska Fairbanks vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education Evon Peter (at right). (Photo courtesy of Evon Peter).

“I'd rather prioritize what's most important to our people and culture and make do with whatever it is that I'm able to earn financially than to embrace these kind of Western ideas, like chasing a big salary paycheck every couple of weeks.’”

He said his family is still working out how to make the new direction financially viable. He and his mother built a duplex together which lowered monthly bills. She speaks Gwich’in, so with his children, the multi-generational household is on a “language learning journey together.” (Peter’s wife Enei Begaye, is a Diné (Navajo) and Tohono O'odham advocate for Indigenous rights).

Peter brought his fund-raising and organizational skills to his new field. He serves as the director of Tanan Ch’at’oh, which in addition to the language nest works on Gwich’in language instruction, research and materials development.

It launched on March 15.

He knows five people who have quit their jobs or made language their top priority, and he sees others who say they’re ready to make a transition. “So I think that the momentum is now clearly building and in the right direction,” he said.

Peter recently shared with another learner about the challenges they face to make the program all that he, the instructors, the children’s parents, and the community would like it to be.

The learner replied, “‘Look at this classroom, filled with our language, filled with our culture... it's incredible how far we've come in just three months.’” Another respected elder, a village-based language expert, recently told Peter that seeing the expansion of Gwich'in language work that is happening, he no longer fears the Gwich’in will lose their language and culture, 

Peter’s change in direction reflects Gwich’in values. In a 2014 interview he said, “In my community you're perceived as being a successful human being based on how much skill you have developed in living in good relationship with the land and living from the land….and then also the attainment of wisdom. As you gain more skills, as you gain more knowledge, as you gain more wisdom, you become more successful within my community.

“Another signifier of success in my community, an Indigenous community, is your wealth is defined by how much you give, not by how much you take.”

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