"This event is far more than a group of college students competing in an oratory contest-it is what a university education is all about," said Paul Kraft, dean of students and enrollment management. "It's providing a chance for people to look at the world from a different perspective than what they've been taught, and to expose them to things that they couldn't get from a textbook. I was profoundly impacted by the experience."
A supporter of the contest since its inception, Kraft has previously acted as a judge and official tallier of the votes, and this year gave the official welcome. Approximately 15 students participated in the event, which features four categories: oratory, dramatic declamation, storytelling and Alaska Native language.
During the oratory competition, students perform a speech that advocates a viewpoint related to Native Alaska, using reasoning, elocution and evidence to support their opinion. Presenters in the dramatic declamation category read or recite from a historic Native American speech, and storytellers perform an Alaska Native or Native American tale. The last category, Native Language, is a presentation in a Native Alaskan or Native American language, followed by an English interpretation.
"I am continually impressed at the number of students who are learning their language and who speak it quite fluently," said Kraft, who adds that he has seen an increase in this area of learning over the past few years. "And it's not the same students every year-more than half of this year's participants were new faces."
This year's first place winner in the oratory contest was Stacy Roberts, followed by Martin Peters in second place, Darren Austin in third place, and participants Cindy Ahwinona and Forest Kuasnikoff.
"I was very surprised to take first place," said Roberts, who prepared her presentation on foster care for approximately three weeks.
"I competed last year for the first time, and though I didn't place, I had fun, so I decided to do it again this year. Being part of the competition has really helped me. I was really quiet before, but I've changed over the years. Now I'm more comfortable talking in front of an audience."
In the Persuasive Speech category, Floyd Kookesh took first place and Greg Brown took second. Lily Hudson earned first place in the storytelling category, followed by Lyle James in second, Greg Brown in third and participant Darren Austin. In the Alaska Native Languages category, first place went to Mary Folletti, second place to Jessica Chester, third place to Lyle James, and participant to Stacy Roberts.
Kookesh, Roberts, Hudson and Chester will go on to compete at the statewide competition in Anchorage, which will be held on March 17-18.
Of course, an event like this could not be held without the support of a lot of people. In addition to Wooch.Een Native Student Organization, who hosted the event, additional help was provided by UAS staff, and contributors Wells Fargo, Sealaska, Tlingit & Haida Central Council, Tlingit & Haida Community Council, ANB Camp 2, ANS Camp 2, Goldbelt, Douglas Indian Association, PITAAS, NRSC and the Chancellor's Fund.
"It was obvious that this was very important to the Native community," Kraft said.
"Elder and local Native leaders volunteered to be judges and came to the reception. And it was really fun to watch them enjoy the experiences of the youngsters and they dug into their backgrounds to discover a greater sense of who they are and where they come from."
"One e-mail I got was from an elder, and it almost brought tears to my eyes," he added. "The woman, who had attended the event, wrote 'now I believe that the future of our language and our culture is in good hands. I hadn't felt that way before.'"
One of the advantages to the contest is that it linked generations of Native Alaskans in a very touching, powerful way, according to Kraft.
"People in their 60s and older know the stories and the language, but then it disappeared for a long time before these students in their 20s starting picking it back up," he said.
"I heard elders at the competition saying how great it was to hear the language spoken again, and I heard the middle generation saying that they wished they'd had the opportunity to do this, and how proud they were that the youngsters were learning and talking about their culture."