Embers of Alternative Futures in Alaska
During Black History Month and beyond, we want to share the inspiration and strength of regional, place-based initiatives that address Black history in nature and relate to this year's theme, Black Health and Wellness.
This blog post is a collage of conversations between Black, Indigenous, and Afro-Indigenous Alaskans. Charting the ways personal histories unravel the self, these writers, artists, healers, family members, and leaders map paths toward healing and alternative futures. A note on the title: "Embers of Alternative Futures" comes from Romy Opperman's "We Need Histories of Radical Black Ecology Now."
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Alaska is for dreaming. Pointing "north to the future," the Alaska state motto promises adventure, exploration, and possibility. People have rushed to the state to pursue natural resources, gold, oil, and the livelihoods that come from it. The first Black whalers to reach Alaska in the early 1840s took to the high seas seeking employment and advancement. In an article about the first Black lawyer in the Alaska Territory, historian David Reamer writes that Mahala Ashley Dickerson declared Alaska to be "the most beautiful place in the world." Still, she also "saw the flaws in Alaska and Alaskans."
This fraught contradiction of beauty and pain is a story that continues today. However, professor and scholar Dr. Carlyn Ferrari cautions that while the pain from the historical and systemic exclusion of Black people from the outdoors should not be negated, it shouldn’t be the sole narrative. A more nuanced understanding reveals an engagement with the natural world rooted in agency and the ability to mobilize towards a just future. To understand that engagement, Dr. Ferrari suggests asking what are "the ways that Black women position the natural world as a generative space, a space that allows them to theorize and articulate their lived experiences[?]"
In Borealis, Aisha Sabatini Sloan complicates Alaska. Like Mahala Ashley Dickerson, Sabatini Sloan observes the full spectrum of space and nature while living in the coastal town of Homer. Excitement. Wonder. Isolation. Anxiety. On one page, Sabatini Sloan describes the moon’s effect, “There was a moment, in what I recall as silver light, when I seemed to say to myself, Alaska! Alaska!” and on another page, “Later, of this trip, I will write, ‘The phasing into and out of boredom and terror. How to watch while being watched.’” When Samiya Bashir reviews Borealis, she writes that “Sabatini Sloan’s conversational architectures of space illuminate landscape as an internal experience whose vastness, she finds, forces her to become her own friend.”
In "An Evolutionary Roadmap for Belonging and Co-Liberation,” Sonali Sangeeta Balajee writes, "At the root of belonging and co-liberation is the living connection among the spiritual, ecological, social, and political realms. It is based on how our individual and group realities are just as multifaceted, multidimensional, and connected as the greater living systems of which we are a part.”
NAAEE Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Resource List
Amplify the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color working in environmental and related fields.
Take the next step to center "Diversity in the Field."
On November 14, 2021, the Alaska Black Caucus (ABC) hosted “Community Conversation: Indigenous Intersectionality.” Throughout the talk, the panelists, Piiyuuk Qungurkaq-Shields, Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie, and Dr. Ebony McClain, mapped a shared analysis of their individual realities.
In defining intersectionality, Dr. Ebony McClain is inspired by self-definition. First quoting Audre Lorde, "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." Dr. McClain then shares, “We can’t look at intersectionality without looking at the generational trauma, the histories of our people, the racism that’s been created based on this historical significance of colonization and slavery. And all of these things that make us, but they make us strong and solid and empowered and beautiful.”
Navigating racism and microaggressive messaging, Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie speaks of healing through family connections in Wainwright, “All my relatives said welcome home. They told me welcome home. All my great aunts and uncles and relatives, they said welcome home because that which is in me is from there. They knew me my entire life. [...] Their expectations [of me] were are you caring? Are you taking care of your cousins? Are you being considerate of your elders? That was the difference. Once I figured that out, everything else, even though you still have those messages and maybe you always will, it doesn't hurt you anymore.”
When ABC host Celeste Hodge Growden asks, “How do your roots influence who you are and what you do today?” Qungurkaq-Shields weaves together the past and future. She shares her sense of responsibility to her ancestors and to her family’s future. Following this thread, Qungurkaq-Shields later says, “We want people to see our names, see who we are, see our Afro-Indigenous backgrounds." She promises to her nieces and nephews, “I'm going to keep showing up as who I am.”
What might Native and Black co-liberation look like in environmental education? Through Love is King’s nature-based programming, participating leaders shape their experiences in nature to be a space of racial uplift and advocacy for Indigenous, Black, and brown people. And it starts in nature where “you find who you are in the depths of self.”
Want to learn more? Visit the Black History Month resource page.
Are you a part of environmental education efforts in Alaska?
Connect with our affiliate, the Alaska Natural Resources and Outdoor Education Association.