A forum for Native voices

Oratory society presents a new generation of speakers

Posted: Monday, April 28, 2003

Ernestine Hayes, who was raised by her grandmother in Juneau while her mother was hospitalized, said she never doubted her mother missed her.

When she gave an oration recently, she linked her story with that of people who have been separated from the land, "and the land still misses them."

An Alaska Native oratory society founded last year is providing an audience for a new generation of speakers, say local educators and students.

"The neatest part about it - even though there's prizes - is it's giving us a forum, a place and a chance to get together and to say what we feel," said Vivian Mork, a University of Alaska Southeast student from Wrangell. "It helps to give us a voice, and it helps to hear each other and notice we have the same ideas and the same perceptions."

The Alaska Native Oratory Society completed its second year of contests April 19 at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where several Southeast college students won prizes.

Hayes, a Juneau resident who just completed her master's of fine arts at UAA, won third place in oratory. UAS student Ekatrina Oleksa won first place in dramatic declamation, which refers to reading a historic Native speech or document.

UAS student Yarrow Vaara of Juneau placed second in storytelling and third place in a special Native-language category. And UAS student Hans Chester of Juneau won top honors in the Native-language category for a presentation about regalia.

"It's who we are," Chester said. "It's our identity."

Students win $2,000 for first place, $1,000 for second place and $500 for third place and must spend the prizes on their education.

The Anchorage contest was the last of three such competitions this year. UAS and the University of Alaska Fairbanks hosted contests last month.

The program began last year with a small contest at UAA, said Dan Henry, a professor and debate coach there who directs the oratory society. Its Web site is www.uaa.alaska.edu/aknos.

The contests are open to Native and non-Native high school and college students, though few high-schoolers have participated so far.

Henry said he was spurred to organize the society, because as a teacher in Haines in the late 1980s he saw a Native student who was uncomfortable with elders, including her grandfather, speaking in the classroom. The girl said she didn't want to be thought of as a "throwback."

In the "standard" oratorical contest, students do research and write a speech, Henry said. But in the Native oratory contests, students speak from the heart and include more truth-telling and story-telling about their own lives to illustrate a point, he said.

Chester said he prepared by "a lot of thinking." He didn't write down much because Native oratory is an oral tradition.

"I took it as a challenge to try to bring back some of that," he said.

The topics tended to be serious issues such as domestic violence and alcoholism.

"I shared my life," said Marsha Hotch, a UAS student from Klukwan who gave speeches at the Juneau and Anchorage contests.

Hotch said she grew up speaking Tlingit, but her life changed several years ago when an elder speaking at a potlatch looked at her through the crowd. Hotch realized there were few fluent speakers left and they were in their 70s. She decided to attend UAS and learn to become a teacher of Tlingit in the public schools.

"I decided I would not be silent anymore," Hotch said. "I need never be ashamed of who God had made me be. I decided I would do what I can to pass on my culture."

Vaara's oration at the Anchorage event was about finding her Tlingit identity, although she came from a nontraditional household, and how to blend academic and cultural education. It was an important theme "because it's who I am," she said.

"It's important to all of us," Mork added.

Young Natives today are the grandchildren of people who were sent to boarding schools and not allowed to speak their language. As a result, their children don't have the cultural knowledge "and we are searching that out," Mork said.

Mork gave a dramatic declamation at the Juneau contest of "Lingt Tundatanee," meaning "Tlingit knowledge," a document written by Katherine Mills, Marie Olson and Wallace Olson.

"Being Tlingit is more than about singing and dancing and speaking the language," Mork said of the speech's theme. "It's about thinking in Tlingit. We all belong to family and clans, and we all take care of each other."

Mork, whose family recently was touched by violent deaths, gave a speech at the Juneau contest about solutions to violence. She lost points when she went over the 10-minute time limit, "but I won at the same time because I touched a lot of people in the audience."

Oleksa won at the UAA contest with a reading of the poem "Saginaw Bay: I Keep Going Back," by Robert H. Davis, a Southeast poet.

"I chose it because I really think it speaks to the sense of dislocation and loss a lot of Native people feel when trying to place themselves in the context of contemporary society," Oleksa said.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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