UNALAKLEET – One of my favorite things to do on this earth is walk in beautiful places. Being in the open air, marveling at the world and being humbled by views makes me feel both strong and small, and happy to be alive. So when my friend Emily told me we should go hiking in Peru, I booked my ticket and looked forward.
Flying to Cuzco for a four-day hiking and camping trip, we got into a jet full of South Americans — an experience I’ll never forget. The jet was full of people who looked like me. Brown skin, brown hair, brown eyes.
I looked at people’s faces and thought, “He looks like he’s from Shaktoolik. She looks like she’s from King Island. She looks like my cousin. He looks like so-and-so’s grandpa.” I had never had this experience outside of a rural Alaska community, and I felt so completely comfortable. I felt so relaxed in my skin looking like everyone else. And I thought, “This is what white people feel like all the time. Lucky!”
Until just more than a year ago, I had lived my entire adult life in Nome, a community whose message of identity was that of a “pioneer town,” and a “gold- rush city.” While the city was indeed established by white men who traveled into our Inupiaq villages, the majority of residents in Nome today are Inupiaq or Yup’ik or Siberian Yu’pik. With white culture and history perpetuated in institutions and art in the community, the majority of residents were, and oftentimes still are, treated as if they don’t belong. I’m saddened to feel I need to point out there is harm in that.
As a young Native woman, I sensed these messages immediately when I moved into the place I have come to appreciate and love. I suddenly found myself living in a place where racism against me existed. I ashamedly say that I initially tried to change to fit in. I tried to be not too Native so that I would be accepted in my new home. I didn’t use the Inupiaq phrases and words I had grown up saying. Due to the external messages I let myself receive, I felt shame. Thankfully, I spent nine months away for school and found perspective. I arrived back in Nome fully embracing my Native self.
I returned to Nome, choosing to live authentically. I chose simple things. I chose to surround myself with people who reminded me that we are beautiful. We are strong. We are enough and do not need validation, despite the messages all around us. I ate Native food more. I visited my friends Vince and Betsy to hear Inupiaq spoken and hear stories from long ago. During this time I fell in love with who I am in a way that I wouldn’t have had I chosen to stay in a community where I remained comfortable. And really, life became so much more fun living authentically, whether in broadcasting, walking through town wearing my parki, or sharing a meal of oil, fish and berries with friends. Being in Nome taught me so much. I am myself no matter where I go, and I am so grateful.
And I am more grateful that I feel and see the tide change in Nome. There is still a lot of work to do, but the messages are changing. And it’s taken both the Native and white communities within the community to make positive change possible. Instead of merely complaining, Native people started difficult and constructive conversations about racism. White people listened. Really listened and took note. A big beautiful step was when the City of Nome partnered with Kawerak, the nonprofit Native organization, to build and showcase a new museum telling both stories of our history. Cultural awareness training for teachers now takes place. The mayor of Nome, a wonderful white guy and former Broadway actor, celebrates the diversity in his community. This change has been beautiful to witness.
Friends. It takes all of us.
Native friends. Don’t pull the young-Laureli-moves-to-a-new-town-and-tries-to-change-her-identity nonsense. Be authentic. Be real. Be your beautiful self. Sometimes, white friends, we need your help in simply being able to do this. Sometimes we need your words, actions and participation.
I know this because at times I have needed it.
Less than a year ago, after walking through beautiful places that once were part of the Incan empire, Emily and I arrived back in the metropolis of Cuzco. I had a few American dollars left in my pocket and I wanted them exchanged to soles, Peruvian currency. Throughout the heart of the city, I walked into booth after booth after booth where men rejected my American dollars for one reason after another. A bill had a tiny tear. The amount was too small to exchange. The bills were too old. Was my money being rejected or was it me? I look Peruvian. What’s going on?
So I asked Emily for help.
She took my dollars and her white skin and beautiful Macedonian bones walked into a booth I had just visited. She came out with soles and said, “White friends come in handy sometimes.”
White friends: We’re going to need your help in the days to come. Although our currency is the same, we face rejection. We have faced messages every day that tell us we are less than. Who knows what the future holds, but we need you and I assure you we’re a lot of fun to travel with in this beautiful world.
This piece was previously published in the We Alaskans insert in Alaska Dispatch News. It was written in response to the 2016 presidential election.