Student Spotlight

Vina Brown

Vina ƛáqvas gḷ́w̓a Brown, Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies

My name is Vina ƛáqvas gḷ́w̓a Brown, I am from the Heiltsuk and Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nations both located in B.C. My father Frank Brown is Heiltsuk and carries the name and chieftainship λáλíyasila. It was our latest family potlatch that I had my name ƛáqvas gḷ́w̓a affirmed within our most secret and sacred ceremony, the Caiqa, also known as our red-cedar bark ceremony. I am my family’s copper carrier; therefore, my name translates into English as Copper Canoe Woman. My mother Kathy Brown is Nuu-Chah-Nulth from the Ahousaht First Nation. Her father was a hereditary Chief and carried the name Kaput, which translates to “to stand on the hill and look down.” My mother’s older brother Russell Robinson now carries the responsibility of this name and seat.

I share my lineage and genealogy because it is a traditional and powerful way to exist in the world, it explains my inherent responsibilities. Sharing who I am demonstrates that no matter where I go in this world, I carry these responsibilities that are ancient, connect me to my homelands, my ancestors, and my community. This understanding of my Indigenous identity is foundational for me. It gives me strength as I navigate western society and institutions that are anchored in a history of colonialism yet often seeking reconciliation with First Peoples.

At 19 years old, I started my higher educational journey when I first attended Capilano University in Vancouver, BC. I immediately felt a disconnection, which at first, was difficult to fully understand and articulate. I sought to bring my experience growing up in Heiltsuk and Nuu-Chah-Nulth cultures into my academic studies, but this proved problematic. I felt like my worldview, especially as an Indigenous woman, was never fully accepted, and that I had to sacrifice my Indigenous identity to be able to participate in western academia. Indeed, it’s well documented that Indigenous students experience significant culture shock in post-secondary institutions, and I was no exception. Although initially discouraging, this experience ultimately reaffirmed my commitment to Indigenous identity, and the importance of supporting Indigenous students while they pursue higher education in western institutions and that they may have a safe, healthy, and successfully experience. This experience has made me even more grateful that there are programs like the University of Alaska’s Cross Cultural Studies Indigenous PhD Program. From the moment I began my journey at the U of A, and heard Theresa John sing a traditional song to open our class, I knew I was in the right place. I knew my identity would be strengthened and affirmed as a Heiltsuk and Nuu-Chah-Nulth Woman.

I presently teach Cultural Sovereignty Courses part-time in the Native Studies and Leadership Program at Northwest Indian College where I am also employed full-time as the Indigenous Program Coordinator at Cooperative Extension. I am new-mother, I have a ten month old son named Hongvi Schjang. He is a gift from the creator, he came down from the shimmering sky. I am grateful for him and my partner Michael Schjang. It is not easy working full-time, being a full-time student, and full-time parent. I am grateful that I have support; my family and friends fully enable me to take on my studies and work-load to the best of my capacity. One thing I have learned from this experience so far is not to stress to much about anything, it does not help the situation. When you allow yourself space to relaxed and understand that you don’t have to be perfect, it frees you up mentally to tackle the tasks in front of you. I would encourage anybody pursuing a higher education to relax and enjoy the journey, the highs and lows come and go. You will get to the end, but in the mean-time ride the wave and enjoy what you are learning about. Another, traditional value that I feel applies here is gratitude, this value is cross-cultural, and I do try my best to stay humble and grateful for each dayI am here in this realm. I encourage any student pursuing higher education to take a moment and think about the seven generations behind them, that set the table for their journey. Then think about the seven generations ahead whose journey you will impact once you become an ancestor. This exercise is incredible humbling and enlightening.

I started my PhD August 2018, in Indigenous Studies with a concentration in Knowledge Systems and Research. I wanted to use this opportunity to connect with my Nuu-chah-nulth side through my work and studies. Further, I wanted to honor the legacy of our Granny/Mother Elsie Robinson and Great-Granny/Granny Mary Little through their basketry. I want to create a Pictorial of all these Matriarchs important works, first and foremost I want to be able to provide my family and community access to my research so they can use it to teach, transfer stories, and share about the contributions and legacy of these women. I want to document my families knowledge about the weavings in the forms of stories, dates-made, identity, inherent rights, and designs etc. I will then put together a document of all the baskets with the descriptions and knowledge gathered. It will be accessible to all our family, my intention is that we can then use it as a tool to teach our children about who these women were, and how important their role was in our family. As well as showcase their artistry by uplifting their intergenerational ripple through our family.

Indeed, basketry is fundamentally about intergenerational transference of knowledge, and is not simply limited to the physical construction of baskets. Nuu-Chah-Nulth weavers and their baskets are repositories of important cultural knowledge. My grandmother learned basketry from her mother Mary Little, who learned from her mother- back to copper woman. I want to honor Grandmothers legacy and all those that came before her by committing to learn how to weave like those many generations of women. I would study the various phases of Nuu-Chah-Nulth basketry. For example, pre-colonial contact basketry was very utilitarian, and focused on functional uses. Whereas today, basketry is increasingly symbolic, representing a time when Indigenous women were honored for their work and contributions to their communities. I want document these important roles and honor the legacy of my grandmother and all the women before her and their commitments to the health and wellness of our Nuu-Chah-Nulth culture and communities. Even though I am a distance student, I really do feel part of the University of Alaska Community, and I am excited about everything I am learning in my courses. Walas Giasixa, Tkleco, Tkleco.

Nate O'Connor

Nate O'Connor, M.A. in Cross-Cultural Studies

Nate O’Connor is a Masters student in the Cross-Cultural Studies program. He was born and raised in Pennsylvania and moved to Alaska in 2008 to attend UAF for his undergraduate studies. While working towards his BA in Philosophy and a minor in Linguistics, he spent a summer in Conamara, County Galway learning gaeilge and traditional Irish culture, music, and worldview. This experience in Ireland led to an interest in language revitalization and language shift in Galway was the focus of his undergraduate honors thesis.

Nate’s current research interests build on his undergraduate studies and includes language revitalization efforts, particularly on the individual level, family support of language in the home domain, and community development/planning of language revitalization; how language and culture integrate with each other and inform epistemology and worldview; and how immersion school experiences influence students’ perception and use of language and culture as well as their health and wellbeing.

Nate’s advice for current or incoming graduate students is first – don’t panic! Other advice includes realizing that the master’s or PhD is just a step in your own learning and growth; it’s ok to not have all the answers. For tips, he highly suggests using reference management software, like Mendeley, EndNote, or Zotero.

January Scott
Photo courtesy of January Scott

January Scott, Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies

December 2017

January Scott is Tlingit from Kake, Alaska. B orn and raised in Kake, Alaska, she attended high school in Juneau, AK and graduated from Juneau Douglas High School. She attended and graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon in 2002 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Her interest in working with youth and adolescents led her to pursue and receive her Masters in the Arts of Teaching from the University of Alaska Southeast in 2006.

In previous work positions, she has worked with a wide-cross section of Rural and Alaska Native people and has traveled across rural Alaska due to her work with youth. She has 15 years’ experience leading and developing youth programming that is culturally responsive and based on positive youth development that is consistently guided by research of current best practices. During her tenure working in the non-profit realm, January graduated from the Alaska Humanities Forum’s Leadership Anchorage program in 2014 and Foraker Group’s Catalyst for Nonprofit Leadership program in 2015.

January began her PhD in Indigenous Studies with University of Alaska Fairbanks this Fall of 2017. She was selected to assist in the research project “Indigenizing Salmon Management” which is a new research project with UAF. While her passion is working with youth in the educational realm, equity and access for Alaska Native people is the primary motivation behind the work that she is engage in and dedicates her efforts towards.

As with education, equity and access are at the heart of the Indigenizing Salmon Management Project. The goal of the Indigenizing Salmon Management project is to use a deeply participatory approach to document the breadth and depth of Indigenous values, knowledge, management and governance systems in its connection to salmon across Alaska and to use this community informed information and knowledge to assess and make recommendations for improving current salmon management processes in Alaska. The project focuses deeply on the inequities in the salmon management system that stem from the historical context of colonialist practices which are currently perpetuated in today’s management systems.

Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone
Photo courtesy of Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone

Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone, M.A. Cross-Cultural Studies

October 2017

Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone grew up in Nome, Alaska and is both I upiaq and Kiowa. While growing up she learned how to pick and gather food from the land. Her mother taught her the proper ways to take care of seal and fish to prepare for winter storage. This upbringing guided her to pursue an undergraduate in Alaska Native Studies and a minor in I upiaq language. She graduated with her bachelor's degree in 2012. Kunaq is currently working on her master's degree in Cross Cultural Studies. Her emphasis has been on reviving traditional I upiaq tattooing and reclamation of our ceremonies. Kunaq has been actively working as an Inuit tattooist in Alaska. She hopes to use her experiences and stories to share with the future generations. Her anticipated graduation date is December 2018.