Creating self identity for Alaska Native youth

Indian Country Today

On today's show we have Alaska Native authors discussing their most recent children's books based in Alaska and featuring Alaska Natives.

It's difficult, if not impossible, for Alaska Native parents to find books their children can identify with. That void prompted one group to help four Alaska Natives write their first children's book. It's part of the Best Beginnings, Seasons of Alaska series.

On today's show we have Angela Gonzalez, Joni Spiess, Carla Snow and Yaari Toolie-Walker who all took on the challenge of writing from a child's perspective. Alyssa London and Vera Starbard have also written children's books based in Alaska and featuring Alaska Natives. 

Some quotes from the show:

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Angela Gonzalez, Author, BUTTON UP! Fall in Alaska

“Well, it just came to get there by trying to picture what we do traditionally in the village. So I tried to write it because we have so many little kids across Alaska who are not represented and as you said in books and literature, and so we really tried to tell our stories from our regions in a way but also make it very open to different regions.”

“Like one of the things that we do in the fall time is moose hunting. So they had a picture of someone going out, moose hunting. So that's a really big tradition for interior people. And I know that there's a lot like caribou hunting, you know, different animals across the state during certain times, but in the interior moose hunting is really big.”

“They can see familiar looking faces, brown faces, which are really awesome. And then just scenery like the tundra, just things that they see in their environment versus like a city street that they may be familiar with from mainstream media. But yeah, seeing village life is really important, especially to young kids.”

“I think it's just really exciting for not only Alaska Native authors, many of us are new authors, so that's a really big highlight. So it might be a surprise to some that, some of us wrote a book and then also the photographers were all Alaska Native. So it was just an awesome collaboration to be a part of.”

“I think it's just really important that we get an opportunity to share our stories.”

Joni Spiess, Author, Mittens and Mukluks! Winter in Alaska

“Mukluks are our traditional form of boots and warm winter wear that we wear on our feet. And they're made of many different things because Alaska is very large, but from my region, we have hard-sole bottoms, which are made out of seal skin. And then the top is made out of various selections of fur, but they're extremely warm and they're used for dance, they're used for practical subsistence use and daily wear. And it's just a matter of pride of getting those handmade items out of your closet and wearing them.”

“My book was really very special to me because I'm from Northwest Alaska and the book really represents the children of the region. I was not only born there, but I was an educator there for years and having the frustration of students not being able to achieve national standards in their reading level. 85 percent of our Alaska Native students were below reading level for the grades and constantly a battle. We always knew intuitively though that not, not all of the books that they read resonated with them and to have it not only be a book for my region, with pictures, from my students and even from elementary school, to me, it just seems like full circle and I'm really proud to be a part of it.”

“There's a huge push and many regions of Alaska to bring back more of our Indigenous language into the educational system. So I really feel like that needs to be represented in the literature that our children are reading. And if I continue and have the honor to write more books, that's one of the things that I would really like to include is to have more of our traditional language. So those, self identification pieces are factors that students can align with and therefore that's that self-empowerment that they get when they're reading something that is reflective of them and their culture.”

Vera Starbard, Author, Raven Steals the Toilet Paper

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of confusion, a lot of chaos and a lot of hoarding of toilet paper. And I was just thinking so much and there was some really funny stuff and some really heartbreaking stuff and some really good wisdom coming from our elders. And it had me thinking an awful lot about how we've been dealing with epidemics for so long, and certainly every Native community knows how hard our communities have been hit by epidemics in the past. So it had me thinking about what we've done in the past, how we've handled it. And then it got me thinking about how Raven might've handled it, which is kind of a huge figure in both my Tlingit and Dena’ina background.”

“It kind of turned into this poem. And then my poor dad, he's a wonderful illustrator. It started with like one or two illustrations I asked him to do and before long he was doing a whole book, amazing collaboration. I love working with him.”

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Raven Steals the Toilet Paper by Vera Starbard

“It just kind of was both a reflection, but also I just wanted to remind everyone, we've done this before. And certainly if we listened to the elders, the ones who've done it, who've gone through it.”

“If we all work together and that's sort of the point of the book, we're going to get through this and be okay at the end of it.”

“I think the title Ravens Steals the Toilet Paper just gets the strongest first reaction, but I think people from that title think it's going to be just totally silly. But I've gotten a lot of reactions about the elder and about the elders' wisdom in there. And I've gotten probably the most reaction out of the illustrations, which I love. My dad did such a beautiful job embodying all these creatures.”

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Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. She is also the anchor of the weekday newscast. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider.

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