For Chris Smith, a University of Alaska Southeast student of Natchitoches Caddo heritage, a Native oratory contest at the college Saturday was the chance to talk about his research into anonymous 20th century carvers.
Martin Peters, of Pawnee ancestry, wanted to practice speaking in front of an audience because he'd like to be a leader.
Greg Brown, a full-blooded Tlingit, wanted to pass along to young people a message about Tlingit culture just as his ancestors would have.
This was the second year for the contest in Juneau. UAS sponsored it locally this year.
UAS Chancellor John Pugh said the event is important, not just from the standpoint of the liberal arts, but because Southeast is Tlingit country.
"It's very important to honor that. ... It isn't just history. It is today," Pugh said.
Saturday's first-place winners will attend a similar event next Saturday at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where the Alaska Native Oratory Society developed the contest in 2002.
The contest is open to high school and college students, but all 12 competitors in Juneau this year were UAS students. The categories were oratory, dramatic declamation, storytelling and Native language presentations.
"Storytelling is very much a part of all Native cultures," Peters, 43, said. "Storytelling is a way of bringing the past into the future, and it's been a part of Native culture since the beginning of time."
The Native style is to put words together in phrases, each of which presents a picture, so listeners can see in their minds what the author is trying to say, Martin said.
"It has a flow to it, like a song, and it's powerful, and it carries a very powerful rhythm," said Smith, 24, who grew up in Palmer but whose family has roots in Louisiana.
"I think it's important to get the words across to the younger generation," Brown, 48, said. "We're always handed down speeches and orations, stories, and it's our job to hand it to the next generation."
Brown competed in the Native language category, in which speakers also gave their text in English.
Like some other competitors, Brown wore regalia. Hollowed-out mountain goat hooves, attached to a fringe on his regalia, gently rattled as he spoke before a panel of judges. His text was written by his mother-in-law, whose Tlingit name is Yax waan T'laa, and translated into English by Wally Olson and Marie Olson.
"Long ago our ancestors knew what it was like to be a real person," Brown said in English. They were strong in body and spirit, he said.
Children heard stories of people who became great through hard work and determination; they were told to live up to the good reputations of their ancestors, he said.
"No one stood all alone. Everyone was part of a family, and the family stood with the person," Brown said.
Mary Folletti, of Tlingit and European heritage, spoke in Tlingit and English about her desire to pass along the Tlingit language, although she doesn't have children or grandchildren.
"My heart is very heavy at the moment," she said in English. "Perhaps your hearts are too. Our grandparents are leaving us."
Lily Hudson, 24, told a story her grandmother, Irene Sarabia Lampe, had heard from her own mother.
"Because of all the things I could have told, that's the one that made me smile and it's directly from my family," Hudson said of her choice.
As a backdrop, she pinned to a whiteboard a Tlingit blanket showing seagull parents hovering over their chick in its nest.
Hudson's story was about a Tlingit mother telling her son not to make fun of the fish they catch, but to cry out "ei how," an exclamation of joy, when he sees a fish jumping in the water.
If you know stories, you know the boy didn't obey his mother. After saying a fish was "double ugly," the boy vanished and later his necklace turned up on a fish his father was cleaning. The parents put the necklace in a basket with fresh grass, and when a fish jumped in the water, the boy was in the basket and "his butt is in the grass," Hudson said. Now the whole family says "ei how" when they see fish jumping.
Contestants were judged by elders, UAS faculty and other community members.
"I'm very, very proud with respect to what you're doing. I'm very grateful," David Katzeek, a judge, told the students. Referring to his ancestors, he said: "When you look at my face, they're looking back at you at the present time and saying, 'Way to go.' "
The winners Saturday were: Storytelling - first place, Lily Hudson; second place, Lyle James; third place, Theresa Brendible. Oratory - first place, Chris Smith; second place, Ed Hotch; third place, Dan Kennedy. Dramatic declamation - first place, Lily Hudson; second place, Ed Hotch; third place, Martin Peters; Native language - first place, Mary Folletti; second place, Greg Brown.
Also participating were Darrellene Karlson and Jean Lampe.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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