Tlingit elder Nora Dauenhauer believes Native oratory is a powerful medium that can heal spirits.
"You make the speech to either wipe away the tears, or tell a joke, or to just give inspiration to the audience," she said.
Dozens of people attended the first day of the Fourth Annual Native Oratory Contest at the University of Alaska Southeast on Saturday. The second and final round of the competition will be held today, with judging beginning at 1 p.m. in several rooms of the Egan Building at the Auke Lake Campus.
Students have the option of competing for scholarship money in four categories - oratory, persuasive speech, storytelling and Native language. For each category, the first-place winner will receive $500, second-place will win $250, and third-place will receive $100. The first-place winner of each category will fly to Anchorage to compete at a statewide competition on March 17 and 18.
Nancy Furlow, event judge and interim director of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said oratory competitions help students build self-confidence and increase their awareness of Native cultures.
"The most important thing is for students to learn how to public speak, but in a way that supports their own cultural identity," she said. "They learn how to speak in a way of their own cultural traditions and on issues that are important to them culturally."
Dauenhauer said it is important for the younger generation of Alaska Natives to learn how to tell stories to carry on the traditions.
"I think it's very important for our kids to know what their culture is made of and oratory is very important in Tlingit culture," she said.
Dauenhauer said oratory is used in meetings, at conferences and at traditional potlatches.
UAS student Cindy Ahwinona gave a speech Saturday detailing what it is like as a young Alaska Native from a small village. Ahwinona, a 20-year-old Inupiaq Eskimo, grew up in Kiana, a village of about 400 in northwest Alaska.
"It's hard, you know," she said "Every other rural person will tell you it's hard."
Ahwinona touched on the problems of alcoholism and suicide during her very first oratory presentation. She said giving a speech in front of an audience about personal issues that are culturally sensitive was nerve-wracking yet enjoyable.
"I couldn't even look up," she said. "It was fun. It's not a competition thing - I didn't see it that way."
Kolene James, a UAS academic advisor and coordinator of the Native and Rural Student Center, said the oratory competition is a learning experience for the competitors, faculty, staff and judges.
"It opens up their eyes to some of the concerns that affect our Native students and some of the Native issues that Alaska is facing right now," she said. "I think it's really good for the campus to host events like this because it gives them a chance to hear what's happening out in the rural areas."
James said many of the students will dress in full Native regalia for the final presentations this afternoon. She said she is particularly looking forward to the persuasive speeches - a new category this year - where students will advocate for or against the issue of Alaska Natives who were born after 1971 enrolling in Native corporations.
Furlow and James said the oratory competitions are vital in molding future Alaska Native leaders.
"You see them grow over a period of several years into very self-confident young people who are able to speak about issues that are important to Alaska Natives, in many types of settings," Furlow said.