Exploring Indigenous Culture: My Journey from DC to Alaska

Hello! It’s been quite some time since I have written a life update! Or talked about my internship! While working in the nation’s capital, I have been able to walk into rooms that I have never imagined. Most recently, I had a blessed opportunity to attend the Native Youth Climate Adaptation Leadership Conference (NYCALC) and various other events that have deepened my understanding of Indigenous culture and environmental engagement.

NYCALC: Empowering Indigenous Youth for Climate Action

Children, mentors, and faculty traveled from various regions, including the Mariana Islands, Alaska, and the western part of the United States, to educate indigenous youth about combating climate change in their areas. I had the opportunity to attend the National Congress of American Indians: Winter Sessions, where tribal delegates engaged with members of Congress and the Administration, strengthening the government-to-government relationship between Tribal Nations and the federal government. I also had the privilege of meeting Director Chuck Sams of the National Park Service on multiple occasions, and I even had the opportunity to interview him to discuss his journey to be becoming the 19th director of the National Park Service. However, the most impactful conference I attended was in Seward, Alaska, focused on enhancing consultation with Alaska Tribes and corporations.

Journey to the Alaskan Wilderness

My people, the Dine’, are recognized by the government as the Navajo Nation. According to historical accounts, the Dine’ are believed to have traveled all the way from Alaska down to the Arizona region. The Navajo Language is Atherbaskan, which is a part of the Na-Dene’s three major languages: Athabascan (or Athapascan), Haida, and Tlingit, which are primarily spoken in the Northwest Territory, the Yukon, and adjacent parts of Canada, west to Cook Inlet in Alaska; in two isolated areas of the Pacific coast (southwestern Oregon and northern California); and in the southwestern United States (mostly in New Mexico and Arizona).

From the Week of May 13 – 19th, I set out on my journey to from Washington, DC to Seward, Alaska. While the 10-hour flight wasn’t exactly enjoyable, I was very excited to explore a place that has been at the top of my travel bucket list. My boss and I flew into Anchorage, and then drove about an hour and a half to reach Seward. On our journey down, I saw breathtaking scenes. The ocean surrounding Anchorage was just starting to defrost and ice blocks were scattered all around. The mountains all around us were covered with white powdery snow, and you can see rivers of snowmelt from the roadways. Although it was only around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it was warm enough to gradually melt away remnants of winter from the mountains.

Building Relationships with Indigenous Communities:

As I entered The Pathway to Confidence: Engaging in Effective Tribal Consultation Training, I had a general idea of what to expect, thanks to my previous experience attending the inaugural conference held at the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin. This training is hosted by the Office of Native American Affairs (ONAA), and it is designed to educate regional tribal liaisons and the national tribal liaison. The program’s structure is an immersive experience that educates Park Service employees on crucial indigenous laws, and how to navigate specific situations effectively. The program also features a culturally significant tribe to the region to speak about their creation story, their history, and how the federal government can better consult with their tribe. Everyone who attends the conference goes out on a trip so they can better understand the land that they are on!

The conference discussed two key laws: the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, which settled Native Alaskan land and resource claims but affected tribal sovereignty, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, which prioritized Alaska Native communities to manage resources and preserve cultural ties in various national parks. 

The conference also provided facilitators with the opportunity to share their personal experiences, with hopes to help NPS employees empathize with the perspectives of indigenous people during tribal consultation meetings. While these facilitators discussed the details of the two significant laws, ANILCA and ANCSA, they emphasized the importance of establishing meaningful relationships with tribal partners.

It’s essential to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples have a longstanding history of distrust towards the government, which invariably presents challenges during consultation processes. However, the conference primarily concentrated on strategies to bridge this gap. One notable approach was the idea of meeting tribal members and their communities on their homelands. This approach not only provides substantive consultation but also forges meaningful personal connections with the community. Opting to visit tribal lands, rather than expecting tribal communities to convene within the confines of the national parks, not only ensures the comfort of tribal members but also shows the NPS’s active commitment to outreach.

When engaging with tribal communities, NPS employees are encouraged to bring a token of goodwill, such as an item from the park museum or something that reflects their home region. In Indigenous cultures, greetings often entail sharing one’s familial background. For instance, in Navajo tradition, one would begin by mentioning their maternal and paternal grandmother’s clans, followed by their maternal and paternal grandfather’s clans. For example, “I am Bilagaana, born for Tó’áhani (I am of the white and near the water clan). My maternal grandfather is Bilagaana, and my paternal grandfather is Tábąąhá (white and of the water’s edge clan).” This practice provides Indigenous individuals with insights into one’s identity and heritage, this builds a sense of connection.

Bridging the Gap:

By adopting such a respectful and culturally sensitive approach, you can effectively interact with tribal nations and contribute to bridging the gap. My experiences in Alaska were truly remarkable, offering unique perspectives that I wouldn’t have encountered without the assistance of the Office of Native American Affairs and the Environment for the Americas. I hope this post provides you with valuable insights on how to engage with tribal communities, and I look forward to sharing more about my future adventures. Thank you for joining me on this journey!

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