Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today
When Alyssa London, Tlingit, was growing up, she didn’t meet her peers’ expectations of what an Indigenous person would look like.
The future Miss Alaska USA grew up in a suburb of Seattle, Washington, some 1,100 miles from her Tlingit homeland. She has freckles, brown hair, hazel eyes and, through her mother, Czech and Norwegian ancestry.
“The average American believes a Native American person looks like how Hollywood portrays us, which is the perception of the Indian with the feather and the dark, olive skin,” London said. “There’s one narrative, one depiction of what a Native person is that is prevalent in our society.”
Measured against that narrative, London said, she is considered “white passing.”
“My identity as a Tlingit has been challenged my whole life,” she said. “Even on the national stage of Miss USA — you could look up the footage of me saying ‘Tlingit aya xat” (‘I am Tlingit’) on national television in front of a few million people — even then you could find YouTube comments and the haters online that would write, ‘No, she’s not an Indian, she’s not Native.'”
She’s written about the multicultural experience in a children’s book, “Journey of the Freckled Indian,” published last year by her company, Culture Story. A book series and television show are in the works.
“I know I’m not the only person who faces that discrimination or that feeling that perhaps you are not who you say you are or your identity is not valid because of your appearance,” she said.
The book follows Freckles, a 10-year-old girl of Tlingit and European ancestry, in her search for her own identity.
“I felt that sharing my story through Freckles’ lens would help many other Indigenous people feel accepted and feel seen in their identity," she said, "but also help non-Native people realize that the identity of an Indigenous person today is more complex than they may have believed.”
The book is illustrated by Monica Rickert-Bolter, Potawatomi and African American, with Northwest formline designs by Preston Singletary, Tlingit.
Freckles' parents fly her to Ketchikan to visit her Tlingit grandfather after classmates tell her she “doesn’t look like an Indian.”
Freckles’ grandfather takes her on eye-opening adventures with interesting characters — Raven, Killer Whale and King Salmon. Together, they help her understand more about her cultural identity and feel confident in who she is.
In a culminating moment, Freckles’ grandfather presents her with Tlingit regalia and a silver bracelet, which symbolize her transition into accepting more fully who she is. He also helps her to be aware of other Alaska Native people of multicultural ancestry like her, making the point that being multicultural and Indigenous does not lessen anyone's claim to their heritage.
As a stylistic and artistic choice, Singletary’s formline designs become bolder as the title character becomes more confident in her Tlingit identity.
In an encounter at school after she returns from Ketchikan, Freckles responds, "Tlingit aya xat," and tells her classmates, “Who you are in part comes from your family’s heritage and is not necessarily just about how you look.'”
Her classmates, in turn, are inspired to learn about their own heritage.
The encounter encapsulates the author's hope for readers of the book — that they'll be inspired to learn about and embrace their culture and heritage just as Freckles did. It’s a message that will likely resonate with other Indigenous people, many of whom have ancestry from other places.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.7 million Americans identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in 2018. Of that number, 2.8 million people identified as Native American alone, while 2.9 million identified as having Indigenous and other ancestry.
Jackie Jacobs, Lumbee, said the book resonated with her because she, too, is a “freckled Indian.”
“I met Alyssa when she was 17 years old,” said Jacobs, a Seattle-based public relations and marketing strategist who is president of Culture Story’s advisory board.
“I was asked to meet with her and mentor her for the Miss Seafair pageant in Seattle," she said. "During our first meeting, she shared with me her experiences of growing up in suburbia and the challenges she faced with her Native identity in her youth. She then shared an endearing story of a visit to see her Tlingit grandfather in Alaska where she shared her experience with him. He assured her she was definitely 'an Indian.'
“I remember her telling me that he lovingly said to her, ‘You’re my freckled Indian.’”
Jacobs said London’s book is important for children and adults. “It represents the importance of inter-generational relationships and the importance of having conversations about multicultural identities,” she said.
Having those conversations can help embolden multicultural children in the face of discrimination and stereotyping.
According to the National Institutes of Health, extensive research shows negative stereotypes can impede academic performance of children, while those who feel accepted and have a strong sense of identity tend to thrive. The research studied children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“I’ve seen children with anxiety and confusion as to who they are and why they aren’t accepted,” Jacobs said. “As for academic performance, I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, where children struggle with their studies and perform poorly, while others overachieve in order to be acknowledged and accepted.”
London knows their struggles.
“I did not grow up in my traditional homelands of Southeast Alaska or around a community of Tlingit people being a part of my day-to-day life,” she said. “It was very much the efforts of my father and grandfather to make it very known to my siblings and me that we are Tlingit and that no one can take that away from us.”
Continuing the journey
London carries the Tlingit name Yáx Ádi Yádi, or Yax Yeidi, which means “valuable child.”
The name was given to her by Clarence Jackson, a key figure in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and former president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians. Yax Yeidi was formerly carried by Alaska Native civil rights leader Amy Hallingstad, Tlingit (1901-1973).
London graduated in 2008 from Inglemoor High School in the Seattle suburb of Kenmore and went on to study at Stanford University, where she was active in the Stanford American Indian Organization, Alaska Native Student Association and the Stanford Pow Wow. She was a National Udall Scholar and in 2012 graduated with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity.
After college, London worked in marketing and communications for Microsoft and, in 2014, founded Culture Story, a media and education company focused on telling stories about culture, heritage and identity.
In 2017, she won the Miss Alaska USA Pageant — the first Tlingit to win the title. During her tenure, she served as cultural ambassador for Sealaska Heritage Institute.
London honored her heritage on the Miss USA stage, identifying herself in the Tlingit language and wearing a Tlingit-inspired evening gown that bore her clan crest designed by Singletary, the same artist whose work is in her book.
Images of London’s gown went viral on social media, with 1.5 million Facebook views.
London now lives in Anchorage, where she and Culture Story are developing a “Journey of the Freckled Indian” animated series for broadcast and video stream.
With a recommendation from “Molly of Denali” creative producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Neets’aii Gwich’in, London applied for and obtained a mentorship in animated children’s programming at Hello Sunshine, actor Reese Witherspoon’s company. Through the experience, London refined her writing-for-television skills and developed her pitch for the series.
“Molly of Denali,” the animated PBS children’s series about an adventurous 10-year-old Alaska Native girl, has received critical acclaim — and a Peabody Award — since its premiere on July 15, 2019. It’s the first nationally distributed children’s series to feature a Native American lead character and has a reach of more than 41 million people, according to PBS.
“Molly of Denali” has also had more than 113 million streams, 4.2 million podcast video streams and more than 21 million games played online and via the PBS KIDS Games app, PBS reported.
The “Journey of the Freckled Indian” animated series would be unique, London said, dissimilar to “Molly of Denali” and the upcoming “Spirit Rangers” Netflix show “because although it is following a Tlingit girl’s journey, the show itself is really about finding your identity and making sense of your place in the world and navigating this question of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where do I come from?’ when you are growing up mixed race in America.”
A series of “Journey of the Freckled Indian” books is planned, in which Freckles meets people from other cultures.
Culture Story is also developing a TV and online series titled “Culture Stories,” introducing viewers to Indigenous cultures throughout the United States. The program intends “to show the relevance of Indigenous cultures and values today to a larger audience,” London said.
“There is an erasure of our stories and who we are today in the media,” she said. “Only 0.04 percent of content in TV, film and media is about Native Americans and an even smaller percentage of that is about the contemporary lives of Native people. That’s the problem I’m solving through Culture Story, both through the children’s book series and the digital media and television series that are in development.”
To be confident in one's heritage and identity — is important and an inherent right, she said.
“As I’ve gone through my journey, throughout all of my education, throughout my young adulthood and my experiences as Miss Alaska USA and as a cultural ambassador for Sealaska Heritage Institute and my tribe, I realized how much that message is needed throughout Indian Country,” she said, “of that feeling of validation, that you are who you are [and] no one can take that away from you.
She added, “It’s a strong need we have as an individual, as a human, to understand and to make sense of our identity and that gets a bit complicated when you are not from one racial group or one culture community. I found this was one way that I could help people, by sharing part of my culture story.”
ONLINE: “Journey of the Freckled Indian is available in hardcover, softcover and as an eBook on Amazon.com. For more information about Culture Story’s work creating acceptance and understanding among peoples of different cultures and backgrounds, go to CultureStory.co.