By Brian Hagenbuch
The opening scene of a short film entitled Rising makes it clear: if we are to correct the injustices done to our planet and all people, we must rely on those who, for centuries, have sustained deep relationships with the land.
“Tribal people, Native people, we can mentor the rest of the world as they try to come up with solutions and come up with a model. We have the model,” stated Akall’eq, Andrea Sanders in the short film.
To elevate and share that model, the Alaska Venture Fund (AVF) has launched a new online platform, the Aywaa Storyhouse. Aywaa means “north” and is the root word for “north wind” in Yupik, and it aims to demonstrate the transformative power of Indigenous oratory, dialogue and expression. AVF also hopes to elevate the next generation of Indigenous leaders who are reclaiming cultural knowledge and advancing social justice.
Drawing on a series of workshops, interviews, and artwork, Aywaa Storyhouse amplifies Alaska Native stories, values and teachings at a critical moment in the region’s history. Alaskans are grappling with their future in a place that is warming twice as fast as the global average. This pace has resulted in thawing permafrost, thinning sea ice and increasing wildfires across the state, bringing profound change to hunting, fishing, travel and other traditional aspects of Alaskan life.
With a $100,000 grant from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, AVF created Aywaa Storyhouse to bring the transformative power of Indigenous oratory, dialogue and expression to bear on these challenges.
A central aim of Aywaa is to support emerging Alaska Native leaders to ground their growth and development in Indigenous culture and values. It also offers a space to elevate the unique “next-gen” voices of these young leaders.
Aywaa does this, in part, by sharing lessons learned from a 2020 convening entitled: Our Seas Are Rising and So Are We, which brought together more than 40 next-gen Indigenous participants. Since then, five themes have shaped the design and content of Aywaa, including the idea that next-gen Indigenous leaders are eager to shape the future of their communities – and the globe.
“Indigenous people should be shaping the climate story, efforts and agenda. We need the freedom to rebuild that is more reflective of our principles and values,” said Jonella Larson White, who works with AVF as a Partner and helped to create and launch Aywaa.
“There is an immediate need to address environmental, climate and social issues at the ground level, but there is an opportunity to have an impact beyond Alaska.”
For those who work closely with the Aywaa Storyhouse and AVF, activating cultural values and applying the lessons learned to other parts of the world can be transformational.
“We have knowledge of what it used to mean to be in relationship with land and place. We lived in balance. As the rest of the world desperately looks for hope and sustainable living […] we, as Native people, can help articulate and show the rest of the world what we can come back to,” emphasised Sanders, in Rising.
As Indigenous people work to strengthen their communities, the values and narratives of Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples will help others reimagine their communities as well. By allowing next-gen leaders who are working on similar issues to learn from one another across time zones, this reimagining can happen faster. Larson White says that the Aywaa Storyhouse helps others understand what can happen when people fully embrace their whole selves and ancestral backgrounds.
“The whole purpose for Aywaa is to share our dialogue, our oratory and self-expression, which is the soul of our sovereignty. Showing Indigenous people who are thriving at the forefront has transformational power.” White stated. “If the work that we are doing keeps our planet and our past and future generations in mind, then that’s a good North star.”