This series is about people and their culture only…without politics

The Arctic Youth Network acknowledges that the knowledge and experience presented here is ownership of the tribes of Nome and Golovin and pays our respects to their Elders, past and present.

Please tell us about yourself. What do you do? Where do you live? Where are you from?

My name is Zoe Okleasik. My Inupiaq name is Maniq. I come from Nome in Golovin, Alaska, and I’m currently a student at California State University, Channel Islands. But a lot of my advocacy work lies in the intersection of mental health and our climate crisis. So I did a lot of work in the schools around my region and talked about how to hunt safely and how our traditions are changing with our changing world. We still need to keep our culture alive. Something I was working on here in Nome, I co-taught two classes. And it was our native language – Inupiaq and tribal government. Both of those are important because language is a huge part of our culture. Without our language, we lose a lot of our stories. There are no words in English that are as good as in the Inupiaq language. Like, there are 12 different words for just snow. And so, like I said, it’s just a lot of the translations get lost in English. And then tribal governance is important because our people need to know what rights they have as Indigenous people, especially as our world keeps changing. And so we did a lot of work with trying to change how our justice system works. And so instead of our current justice system, we train, or we were trying to change it into a more restorative justice system by doing talking circles and justice circles with community members so that our people can see that they’re still cared for and that they just made one little mistake, and it doesn’t have to change the rest of their lives.

Zoe Okleasik. Retrieved from

And we would just like to point out several things. First, the questions were developed mainly by Board of Directors members. So, and to follow up, where is your community located? In what part of Alaska?

Nome is on the western coast of Alaska, and what’s called the Norton Sound region (Inupiaq: Imaqpak) comprises 19 tribes within 16 villages along the coast. So that’s where a lot of my work lies in the Norton Sound region of Alaska.

Nome, Alaska map. Retrieved from

With which three words do you associate your community? Could you please describe your community?

Three words I would use to describe my community are Resilient. Powerful and Supportive.

It’s interesting. And you said powerful. Actually, in the previous interview that our board of directors member conducted in Russia (read here: Interview with Oksana Yar (CLICK)), it was a lot of interesting moments about the role of women in the community and their strength and how powerful they are in the Indigenous community and reindeer herding community. And how can you describe what is the role of women in your community within the culture and traditions?

Yeah. I think I’ll just say it straight up. Women are the most important part of our communities. This is for multiple reasons. The main, the kind of obvious reason that’s easy to say is the first one is women typically live longer. Our people knew that even before Western science and even before. So that’s one reason they usually live longer. And so they were the oldest in the community, normally. And then the second reason is that our women are life-givers. Without our women, obviously, we wouldn’t be able to be born. A lot of our traditions get passed down through our women. And our women are caretakers. And so that typically means that we have a matriarchal family structure as well. And so I learned a lot from my grandmothers and my aunties on my mom’s side specifically. I spend most of my summers in my mom’s village of Golovin. And then, a third little thing: we get our Inupiaq names from our mom’s grandma. And so I think that’s kind of interesting. I’m not sure if that’s just my family, but that’s what my mother told me when I got Inupiaq name from my great-grandma Agnes. It’s Maniq, and it means the time the salmon eggs are hatching.

Golovin, Alaska. Retrieved from

It’s very interesting. Thank you. And we would like to ask the question from our board of directors member, Nina. She’s from Reykjavik, Iceland. And she wanted to know how you define and express your cultural identity as an Indigenous youth in the Arctic. So, could you please share some traditions or specific aspects of it that hold particular significance for you personally?

A lot of our culture revolves around being able to subsist. That’s how we get a lot of our festivals, and a lot of our dances is through, like a hunt, a successful hunt, or like that’s how we learn to is by watching our family do things – like my father going moose hunting or watch my mother cut fish for the first time. Or we learn which plants were allowed to eat through watching. And so a lot of our stories come from being able to subsist.


The next question is also from Nina. How does your community’s relationship with the Arctic environment shape your daily life and cultural practices? So, what values do you believe are essential to the well-being of your community? And how do you see the younger generation upholding these values?

I have a funny story that might be related, but maybe not. But when I think about this question and how Indigenous people live in the Arctic, I took a class at Harvard for one week, and we got a lesson on resilience, and I just thought that it was a class with Alaska or having representatives from Alaska, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, like all these Arctic states. And I just thought it was ridiculous that Indigenous people of the Arctic are getting a lesson on resilience because we are some of the most resilient people in the world, being able to live in one of the harshest climates for time immemorial. And so I think that plays a big part in our cultural identity with the Arctic. I think it’s so funny when we get lessons on resilience, but without that aspect, I think we wouldn’t be as resilient as we are today. I think it also ties into how we subsist, how our houses were made back in the day, how we made heating sources for, you know, living in negative and harsh conditions. And so I think it made our people really strong. And I think we are still strong to this day, of course. We are still resilient, and we’re still able to practice our cultures. Even though colonialism tried to erase our traditions and erase our people in general. So I just think that’s beautiful. And I see I’m excited to keep, continue to grow in my culture and keep continuing to teach the next generations.

You talked about resilience, and you told us this very funny story. So, how can you define resilience? So, what definition of resilience is trustworthy for you?

I didn’t think the presentation itself was ridiculous. I just thought it was ridiculous that I was given to us like, I think it was accurate. And they brought up Indigenous communities and their resilience presentation. But like I would use the Google definition that I just got with the capacity to withstand and recover quickly from difficulties, i.e. toughness, because I think Arctic Indigenous people are very, very, very tough. And so, yeah, when I think of resilience, I immediately think of Indigenous people in general, of course. But especially those coming from the Arctic. But that just being my bias is coming out, being raised and lived up here my entire life.

What factors influenced your decision to start teaching the younger generation and to work with the younger generation, to promote Indigenous culture, and to advocate for Indigenous culture and traditions? What were the aspects of your decision?

So Indigenous people do things a little bit for themselves, but mostly because we want to make a better future not only for our children, but our children’s children and their children and so forth. And so something I learned was something called the seven generations. Seven generations ago, my ancestors were thinking about how they could make a better future for me. And so I need to be able to continue not only to create a better future for myself and these generations, but I also need to remember that I need to make a better future for the next seven generations so that they’re able to subsist, they’re able to learn their languages, and they’re just able to learn their culture that I’m privileged and able to know so much about. And so that’s what goes into my factors when I think about why I’m doing this work.

Alaskan young generation. Retrieved from

What are your dreams and aspirations for the future, both personally and for your community? So, how do you envision the role of indigenous youth in shaping the future of the Arctic and addressing the global challenges?

I have a lot of big dreams, and I have a lot of small dreams to get there. A dream that’s already happening is that youth, all just youth in general, are being invited to the table. Finally. So we’re getting in Nome, we have a student representative on our city council. I am on a Youth Board for Youth Together for Arctic Futures project. And so youth are finally getting a voice on issues that are going to be impacting them most in the future. And youth are being listened to, and so that makes me super excited as we continue to grow. And so I used to be my answer is that I want youth to be at the table. But I think we’re finally getting there. And I finally see a push being made. And so I think I can move on to my bigger dreams, which is right now Alaska is facing a salmon crisis right now – a lot of our families are not catching enough fish to be able to sustain themselves through the winter. And so I guess another little dream, but slightly bigger than the first one, is that our salmon are able to return home and return to our waters so that we’re able to fish and able to subsist and sustain ourselves.

Zoe Okleasik at the first EU Arctic Youth Dialogues 2024, Brussels, Belgium. (c) Youth Together for Arctic Futures project

Thank you very much. And regarding the Youth Together for Arctic Futures, it’s kind of also a great achievement that we were able to get people like you. The Arctic Youth Network also nominated one other person from the Canadian Arctic, from the Indigenous community of the Canadian Arctic. That is an achievement because it was a lot of projects related to Indigenous people funded by European institutions. Still, on the boards in the consortium, there were mainly European representatives. So, we need to expand that perspective; the Arctic is not only the European Arctic; it’s also Canada and the US. And their voices are also important, especially for Indigenous communities. That is a big achievement for the European project to have voices from Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. And I would like to ask you a question from Anastasia, who is our Board of Directors member from Finland. She wanted to know in what ways your community dealt with or reacted to the colonial history of your home, Alaska. First of all is it a topic which comes up regularly? And do you learn about it in school or from your elders? So what would you like there to be more activities which aim at educating about that topic. So basically, the topic of colonialism and how it’s reflected.

So, when I was in high school in the ninth grade, I had a white teacher of history. And I think that impacted the way I learned about Alaska’s history with colonization and just how Alaska was founded by Russians in the US and so forth. And so that’s where we started our Alaska history lessons – the colonization of Alaska. But we didn’t call it that. We called it Russians Discovering Alaska for the first time. And the impacts that had specifically on the beaver population down in the southwest, I believe it was. And so when I think of learning about colonization in Alaska, I think of this one lesson we were learning about the Battle of Sitka (CLICK) And the Tlingit actually won this battle. I remember thinking, in high school, how sad I was for the Russians to win or to lose that battle, which is crazy for me to look back on, especially as an Indigenous person and now knowing more history about Alaska. Because that was just Indigenous peoples defending their lands and winning, which is such a beautiful story now looking back. And then, in 10th grade, I had an Indigenous history teacher, and we didn’t start with the colonization by the United States. We talked about Indigenous histories and the people that were there before Europeans got there, before colonization. And so I think who’s telling the story is important, just as important as the written history that was there. Because you can interpret it in different ways. You can start with the colonization of a state which is only this much history. Or you could start with the Indigenous people, which is this much more history? I learned more about Indigenous histories too, as well, from my older sister, who was able to get those histories from our grandparents. Of course, we have a rough history with residential schools here in Alaska and just in the United States in general as well. And so it was hard at first to get our elders to speak on our culture and our languages and our dances. But I think our people are healing right now. And so we’re able to talk to our elders about our culture now, and we’re able to subsist with them, and we’re able to ask them about our language and questions we have about our language and culture in general. They’re not scared of punishment anymore because that’s what happened to them in the residential schools. My great-grandmother was forced to eat a bar of soap if she spoke her language, or she got slapped on the wrist for speaking Inupiaq. And so I think it’s a really full circle moment right now. We were still going through colonization, not even two generations ago. And so there’s still a lot of healing that needs to be done, of course. And there’s still a lot of generational trauma, but I think we’re heading in the right direction in terms of healing and learning and being able to be in community with each other.

Tlingit, Taku Tribe from Bulletin. Retrieved from

We would like to ask you a question from Elena. She is a PhD researcher from Cork, Ireland. And actually, she is doing her PhD in indigenous languages. Do you feel empowered using the Indigenous local language? Or would you like to speak your indigenous language more freely?

I definitely feel very empowered when I speak my language. I’m still learning. The one thing I really know how to do is my introduction in Inupiaq, which is a really good thing. It’s the first thing we learn how to do because that’s how we make connections with each other. Especially when I go to conferences in Alaska, I introduce myself in Inupiaq and get people coming up to me: oh, I’m your auntie. Oh, I know your grandma… And so, being able to introduce myself in Inupiaq, I find myself having many more connections than I ever thought possible. And I find myself growing my family, which makes me really happy.

Indigenous Languages of Alaska: Iñupiaq. Retrieved from

Can you suggest from your experience, from your participation in the conferences, some methods to showcase and promote the uniqueness of the Indigenous culture? So, what were the best practices that you saw?

I think the best way to show the uniqueness of each of our cultures is by wearing our regalia. I was learning a lot from Sámi youth about the importance of colour when they use their regalia and how certain shapes mean certain things. And so I think it’s kind of the same here in Alaska with our regalia, too. Our regalia shows where we come from. There are slightly different styles of our kuspuks that get worn. So you can tell which region of Alaska they come from, or even the word that they use for kuspuk. Like I say, kuspuk. But up north, they say atikłuk. And especially with our earrings, you can tell if you’re Alaska Native because Alaskan women typically have the biggest earrings in the room, which I think is really cute and fun. But just showcasing our regalia shows the uniqueness, which I really love.

Kuspuks. Retrieved from

And in relation to that, I would like to ask, how do you relate to other Arctic indigenous communities in particular use? Is there a sense of commonality or a sense of community and commonality between different Indigenous communities, or for example, do you feel that you are sharing the same goal or you are sharing the same traumas with other Indigenous communities?

Definitely, I feel a connection when I see other Indigenous youth, especially in the Arctic. But even here in the United States, we all went through colonization, and although it could be slightly different in some places, overall, we all felt that loss of culture, we felt that loss of language. But on the flip side, when we meet each other, we’re all so proud to talk about our cultures and where we’re from. I recently started doing some international travel. And so I was able to meet other Sámi youth for the first time. We were able to talk about how the governments are trying to shut us down and how we go through similar problems with climate change and loss of language and culture. And so being able to meet each other, I think, is so important because we automatically start sharing our traumas, but also the ways we celebrate life and the way we, as indigenous people, are trying to grow our culture.

The Youth Together for Arctic Futures project will be a great bridge for Sámi and, hopefully, for the Arctic Youth Network members of Indigenous origin. And I think it’s a great opportunity and great connection where Sámi can talk with the Inuit, especially in times when the Arctic Council is kind of in crisis. You mentioned that in Alaska, there are Indigenous representatives in youth councils at different levels of governance. But do you feel that your local, regional or state government is putting enough effort into involving your community’s perspective in decision-making processes? If to talk more from an administrative standpoint, do you feel involved in decision-making processes or the case of the US, it depends on who is in the lead?

I think our local governments are doing such a great job at including youth. I remember the first time I spoke at a city council meeting. I felt listened to, and I felt like they actually cared about what I was saying. Then, that following year, one of my classmates spoke to the city council as well and became a student representative on the city council. So that position is someone who’s under 18, so they don’t have voting rights. They’re not allowed to vote on decisions because they’re not 18, but they provide a youth perspective on issues. With my experience, I was a student representative in 12th grade, and I felt like my perspective mattered on these issues. I’m very happy I had that experience. I think with our local government, we’re getting there. However, I don’t see that Indigenous perspective yet with our city council. I believe we have two Indigenous city council members out of ten. And so that only accounts for, you know, one-fifth of our city council being Indigenous voices. And so I want to see that number moving up, and I want to see more Indigenous people running for local government. I would love to see an Indigenous mayor one day. I’m sure we’ve had one in the past, but in my lifetime, I don’t remember seeing an Indigenous mayor yet. If to go from local government to tribal one, right now, there are 19 tribes within the region. Our tribes are working on getting youth representatives on their tribal councils as well, which I’m super excited to see, and I’m excited to see how that position grows.

Can you tell us about the traditional food that you eat, which might not be familiar to us? So to simplify that question, I would like to ask, what is the food that you can associate with your community?

I think the food that I associate with my community is fish. I grew up, like I said, in between Nome and Golovin and going back and forth between the two communities. But I’ll never forget going to fish camp with my mother for the first time. And so we would put our little fishing net in the water and then wait a few minutes; little kids would go into the river, splash the water and make the fish go into the net and pull it in. Then, for hours into the night with the midnight sun, we would just be cutting fish. If you’re too young to cut fish, then you’re watching your older sister, your aunties, your mom and your grandma all cut fish. And then once they’re done, you grab the fish that they cut, and then you rinse it in the water, and put it in a bucket. And then once the bucket is full, an older person typically will grab the bucket. And then you put it on your drying rack. And so our dry fish was able to sustain a lot of people through the winter, along with other foods such as moose, caribou and beluga whale. But when I think of a food that describes my community and especially my childhood, I think of fish, specifically salmon.

Alaskan fishing. Retrieved from

And we would like to ask the final question: can you share the most important advice that you received from your elders and that you are using in your daily life? 

Something my aunties and my grandma always tell me – is that your voice matters. Your voice is so important. I think of this quote by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Even if your voice shakes, you should still use it because it’s telling the truth. You’re telling yours. And so, without that advice, I wouldn’t have been able to do so much public speaking specifically. Without that advice, I wouldn’t be able to make as big of an impact as I have been trying to do. And it’s not advice per se, but it always makes me happy to hear that they’re proud of me and they’re proud of the work I’m doing.

About the Author: Arctic Youth Network

The Arctic Youth Network is a youth-founded and youth-led non-profit organization supporting a global network of youth through international cooperation and capacity-building.

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