Five college students mustered their courage and found their voices Saturday afternoon when they shared personal anecdotes, family folklore and other stories at the regional Alaska Native Oratory Society competition at Kenai Peninsula College's Kenai River Campus.
The society, founded in 2001 at the University of Alaska Anchorage, encourages Native and non-Native students to speak out on weighty issues in their communities. Held in the Riverview Commons, the competition featured three students in the oratory category, one student in Native language and two students in storytelling.
Shannon Alexie, a 20-year-old Alaska Christian College student of Yupik descent, was the only entrant to participate in more than one category. The Alaska Native took her turn in the oratory category, imparting her firsthand account of the ravages of alcohol addiction and child abuse on the human soul.
"Many of the Alaskan Native youth are forced into foster care because of an unsafe environment," Alexie said. "I am one of these children. I am a child to an alcoholic mother. I am a victim of child abuse caused by an alcohol addiction. I know all too well the pain and destruction behind a bottle of alcohol -- and it's behind every bottle. I know the chaos and rampage of a drunk person, and I know to stay clear."
Alexie was placed into foster care the summer before her freshman year of high school. She came to Soldotna and attended Skyview and Soldotna high schools before returning to Mountain Village, her home, to finish her education.
"It is an unnecessary pain, an unwanted hurt," Alexie said, fighting a wave of emotion as she struggled to continue. "Something that is covered up, hidden or masked. Nobody wants to admit they are a victim of child abuse; that the only attention they get from their parents is when they're beating them."
After her speech, Alexie commented on sharing her story with such unrestrained, naked honesty in front of a crowd of about two dozen.
"If it hurt me, then it definitely hurt a lot of other people," she said of alcohol addiction. "I feel like it should be shared and it shouldn't be kept a secret, because there is hope out there."
Unlike Alexie, Sondra Stuart acutely felt the nerves of public speaking. Stuart was the only entrant in the Native language category. She demonstrated how to make a traditional beaded necklace, while commenting and instructing in her Ahtna language.
Raised in Kenai, Stuart left the Kenai Peninsula about a decade ago and moved to her father's village in Chickaloon to learn about her culture and the Ahtna language. Stuart says that since moving back to Kenai, her Ahtna has gotten rusty, and that her present endeavor to become more proficient in the language is fueled by a desire for personal growth and a responsibility to her elders.
"I think it's important because it's a healing process," Stuart said. "You really learn about yourself and you learn a lot about your family when you learn your language. Doing beadwork is another thing that I feel helps me heal."
Stuart took first in the Native language category, receiving a $300 prize. Alexie took second in the oratory category, tying with Jaber Mohamed, for a cash prize of $200; and first in the storytelling category, for $300. Brenda Dock, who gave a lecture on the realities of suicide in the Native community, walked away with first place and $300 in the oratory category. Jaclynne Richards came in second for storytelling, winning $200.
Winners qualify to participate in the statewide Alaska Native Oratory Society competition Saturday at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Even though much of the dialogue at the regional competition focused on problems that continue to plague Natives, hope and solidarity were the messages that had the final word.
"I am no longer held captive to desperate emotions and abuse," Alexie said at the end of her speech. "I just wish -- I wish with all my heart -- that more children could say this. That they could break free, and settle in a beautiful life.
"I personally do not have all the answers. I can't set the solution in stone, or put a master plan into action, or somehow fix the problem, or even begin. Not by myself. I can't do it alone."
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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