By Anna McGovern, Wellness Education Coordinator
Angela Williams’ AmeriCorps journey began earlier this year, but her story starts long before that. Born in Sitka but raised in Haines, she grew up immersed in the Tlingit culture and lifestyle. Her family, like many Southeast families before them, grew up living a subsistence lifestyle. Williams blissfully recalls stories of shrimping in the dark of night with her dad and dip netting for hooligan with her brother, Luke. She reminiscences about the nights spent with friends huddled in the woods around a bonfire.
The happiness Williams experiences as she recalls these memories is undeniable. This joy gave her strength through past turbulent times and fuels her passions and dreams today. This joy and passion she has for her Tlingit culture has carried with her full circle through life: a suicide attempt and then a resurrection to bring this strength to those in her community.
Following a weeklong orientation training in January, Williams returned to Haines renewed. Departing Anchorage, she realized a new chapter of her journey was just beginning. Williams spoke of a challenging childhood stating, “I stumbled upon bridges, hills, and mountains to the point I asked myself a lot, ‘Am I even meant to be here?’…As I reflect on everything I realized that I was put through everything for a reason. I am here to help make a difference in someone’s life to…not make decisions like I did because of things that happened throughout my childhood that weren’t in my control.”
Determined to tell her story and to help youth who might be facing similar challenges she’s experienced, Williams’ blog, Becoming Tlingit, came to fruition as an outlet for unraveling and sharing her memories. Though growing up was not easy, Williams was fueled to learn and grow from her experiences. Most importantly, she wanted to pass on the lessons she’s learned from them. Williams lives by the motto, ‘what happened to you doesn’t define you.’
Every day, Williams strives to live by this motto. She served as a Resilient Alaska Youth (RAY) AmeriCorps member, supported by the Corporation of Community and National Service (CNCS), RurAL CAP, and Chilkoot Indian Association. RAY AmeriCorps members work to reduce the incidence of youth substance abuse and suicide by engaging youth in culturally-rich, skill-building activities while promoting wellness, positive identity and healthy relationships.
Williams found that her role as a youth leader facilitated the growth of her confidence and pride to tell her story as a suicide survivor. According to Williams, many people shy away from the topic of suicide, but she believes youth shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about suicide, especially if they have survived. Williams believes mental health of young ones and their physical health are vital for the future. She urges adult supporters to focus and guide youth through struggles they may have mentally and physically. Williams also recommends people be understanding of kids’ struggles and avoid labeling them.
When she felt at her lowest, Williams found that subsistence and cultural activities was what saved her. In her personal healing journey, Williams wants to share her story and share the power of Tlingit culture in her healing. Williams believes that culture isn’t and can’t be defined in a specific way. She says, “I may not know how to tell a story or sing a song in Tlingit, but I know where I stand in culture and I live it every day with my family.”
Williams strives to live and coexist with the values of the Tlingit culture, including respect, remember, responsibility, truth, care, reverence, sense of humility, care of human body, dignity and peace. While it is vital to carry on the language, she believes there is an equivalent urgency to carry on the values and the knowledge of subsistence living for generations to follow. It is the subsistence traditions that Williams connects with most deeply. Memories of growing up were defined by countless days spent subsistence hunting and fishing with her family. Subsistence was and is the way of life.
With the loss of her family’s boat and personal struggles in the aftermath, Williams found herself slipping from the activities that held her grounded. She found herself struggling with a drinking addiction, and living a lifestyle she now recognizes was unhealthy. Williams, now 26, is regaining her footing and again finding solace in the land and water. She is passing on the knowledge of this haven to youth in Haines and Klukwan, teaching youth the proper times, methods, and techniques to fish and dig for crab. On a rainy Saturday, she brought two youth out to the Chilkat State Park for their first crab digging experience. While the tide had come too far and buried their chances of crab, Jayden and Gilbert learned lessons on the importance of timing, location and patience in working with the ocean.
Just a little Hooligan
A large part of Haines’ history revolves around a little fish called, hooligan or echelon, which make their way into the Chilkoot and Chilkat rivers annually. The Hooligan arrive anywhere from early May, late summer, and have even been spotted a time or two in the winter. Hooligan were typically smoked or harvested for their oil, an important commodity that some Haines residents remember. “Hooligan oil was the gold of Haines,” says Harriet Brouillette, Williams’ Site Supervisor and Chilkoot Indian Association’s tribal administrator. Brouillette mentioned the art of cultivating hooligan oil is not as prevalent in the community as in the past, yet there are families who continue to produce and carry on the tradition of creating hooligan oil.
For several years, the Chilkoot Indian Association has supported RurAL CAP’s AmeriCorps program helping build capacity in the community. The Chilkoot Indian Association has been and excellent partner in AmeriCorps service and has actively worked to grow youth cultural connection in Haines. Harriet’s efforts at the Chilkoot Indian Association have led to: youth participation in dance groups; funding for youth culture camps through the Department of Juvenile Justice; and increased youth interest in traditional carving, hunting and subsistence harvest.
Even though she’s not a fan of the oil, Williams says, “Coming from a prevalent culture in Haines, it’s important to continue such a tradition.” Williams recalls memories of fishing, hunting and spending time with her father and brother dating back to four years old. She goes on to say, “I reflect back on times when I need some comfort in my life.”
Passing the Torch
There is reasoning as to how Alaska Natives have survived for generations. With subsistence hunting and fishing came stories, relationships, growth, and resilience. A quote from R.G. Collingwood states: “History is for human self-knowledge…the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” To survive and to move forward in the world, one must look back to the history of those before them. By learning from stories of Elders, the traditions of the Tlingit people, one can continue to thrive in a holistic way connecting themselves to the earth that has sustained them for thousands of years, and thousands more to come.
Williams strives to pass on her stories, knowledge, and the love for the land and water. She thrives best when there is a fishing pole or a dip net in her hand. She acknowledges that the land and water have helped support and guide her through some tumultuous years and continue to do so as she formulates her future. With the RAY program, Williams provided youth with opportunities to participate in subsistence activities and connect with nature and culture. She is not merely passing on tips on how and when to dig for crab or what time of year to catch hooligan, rather, the lesson is much larger.
Anna McGovern is the Community Wellness Coordinator at RurAL CAP. She coordinates both the Growing Up Tobacco Free in Alaska program with statewide RurAL CAP Head Start staff, and ATCA Youth Leaders, a statewide youth group, all working towards a tobacco free Alaska.