Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Samuel Johns – Athabascan Rapper and Motivational Speaker

Samuel Johns, aka AK REBEL. Courtesy photo
Samuel Johns, aka AK REBEL. Courtesy photo

Samuel Johns is Ahtna and Gwich’in Athabascan with family from Copper Center and Arctic Village. Sam has lived in Anchorage with his family since 2005. Sam, also known as AK Rebel, is a rapper, father, motivational speaker and performer. He is a member of the Ahtna Heritage Dancers. A few of Sam’s role models include his uncle, Kenny Johns, Mao Tosi, and Evon Peter.

When asked what inspired him to get into music, Sam said, “I always felt like I had a view.” He wasn’t sure how to get it across. When he was 15 years old, he read a book by Malcom X. That book inspired him to stand up for his people. Sam started out doing poetry, then it transformed in to rap music. He felt he needed to make a bold statement, but something that people could understand. Sam used his voice to spread awareness on various topics.

Sam decided he needed to speak up for the new generation. He referred to the older generation as the pipeline generation. Sam says the pipeline generation focused on income and financial security, and worried about having a nice house and car. The older generation didn’t seem to connect to their kids as much, and the kids wandered off. Sam sought to give the younger generation a message and to get a message from them. He says, “They want a connection with their parents…a bond.”

Sam’s message to youth is let them know they will always be tested with life’s challenges. When people face trials and tribulations, they numb their pain with substance abuse – alcohol and drugs. Sam lived like that at one point and says he is not going back to that life. He says people have two choices when they have trials and tribulations. One choice is to numb the pain and not face the problems, or to feel the pain and face the issues head on. Sam has definitely had his fair share of problems over the years, including being evicted, having his car break down, and other personal losses.

Samuel Johns (at right with bandana) dances at the end of the March for Justice in 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Samuel Johns (at right with bandana) dances at the end of the March for Justice in 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

At a point between jobs, Sam watched a documentary on the Fairbanks Four and felt compelled to do something to help. In 2013, Sam organized the March for Justice in Anchorage in honor of the Fairbanks Four. He wasn’t sure if it was going to happen, but things kept falling into place. Sam received encouragement from people around the state and people came forward to help and to go on the walk. According to Sam, there were marchers from Huslia, Galena, Fairbanks, Copper Center, Mentasta, Tanacross, and more.

Samuel Johns participates in the Walk for Tsucde in May in Anchorage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Samuel Johns participates in the Walk for Tsucde in May in Anchorage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Sam’s biggest challenge right now is to remember humbleness and humility and to not let ego get in the way. He has received a lot of media attention for the past year and has been praised by many. More and more people are looking at him. Sam doesn’t want to forget his purpose and to get caught up in all of the attention.

One of the first media stories on Sam was when he visited homeless people at Bean’s Café, and practiced his Ahtna songs. At the time, he was between jobs and wanted to do something to help the homeless. He started out by making sandwiches and ended up going their once a week to practice. For about 11 weeks, Sam went there every week with a few other dance group members from the Ahtna Heritage Dancers.

The beat of Sam’s drum and songs created a spiritual energy and he connected with the homeless. Sam says, “I’m giving their identity and culture back…reconnecting.” The homeless people didn’t ask him for money, but just asked him to come back each week. Sam felt like he was giving the spiritual healing. He also felt like he gave them hope by giving them his time and showing them they worth something. Even though, Sam and the dance group performed the same songs each week, they were still appreciated.

Samuel Johns performs at the Walk for Tsucde with the Ahtna Heritage Dancers. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Samuel Johns performs at the Walk for Tsucde with the Ahtna Heritage Dancers. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Sam is currently working on his first album. He released a couple songs through SoundCloud, Facebook and YouTube. Those songs are about his struggles with identity. Sam is working on songs about domestic violence, subsistence rights and reconciliation. He wants his songs to have a purpose and to be positive. Sam will continue performing for events and to do motivational speaking.

I watched Sam perform his song, “We Are One Tribe”, at the Anchorage TedX event in April. Listen to that song below. His songs and speeches are inspirational and real. Sam is a person who speaks the truth even though it may not be pretty. He reminds us to look at our problems and deal with them. He also reminds us of the importance of reconnecting with our traditions and culture.


Ana basee’ Sam for sharing your story and for motivating people!

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Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Marjorie Merry Grunin – Entrepreneur, Mom and Actress

Marjorie Merry Grunin. Courtesy photo
Marjorie Merry Grunin. Courtesy photo

I first met Marjorie Merry Grunin in 1991 when was attending the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI), a summer program at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. She did a presentation in my class at RAHI. Marjorie was wearing a pinstriped skirt with a white blouse during her presentation. She looked like a sophisticated and confident businesswoman. Marjorie presented about business technology and marketing. Marjorie and the marketing professor, Dale Fodness, were the reasons I chose to pursue a marketing degree. At the time, she was an owner of one of the first technology companies in Fairbanks.

Marjorie has been a role model and a mentor to me. She lives and works in the Fairbanks, Alaska area with her husband two daughters. Marjorie is an accomplished businesswoman who also volunteers for organizations and causes important to her. Finding balance between her family life and career has always been like a tug-of-war for her. Marjorie’s first priority became her family after she found the person she could share her life with and have children. At that time, her career opportunities took a backseat to the needs of her family, especially when her husband was active duty and living in a tent in the Saudi desert over a six year period.

Marjorie Merry Grunin at the Cascaden Ridge overlook off of the Elliott Highway on the way to Minto. Photo courtesy of Marjorie
Marjorie Merry Grunin at the Cascaden Ridge overlook off of the Elliott Highway on the way to Minto. Photo courtesy of Marjorie

Marjorie was there for her daughters while they were young, and it was both a blessing and a sacrifice. She used that time to complete her master’s degree, studying late into the night while her daughters slept. Now that they are grown she has the ability to refocus on work with a greater time commitment. Marjorie’s job is demanding, but she tries to leave work at the office to be truly present in the family in the evenings.

One of Marjorie’s most significant challenges is one that many Alaska Native women and women in general face and that is not being taken seriously. She envisions a future for her daughters without glass ceilings, parity in pay and benefits, and the freedom to live without sexual discrimination or fear of assault.

Marjorie’s Life Lessons:

  • Give from the heart
  • Develop skills to face challenges and overcome adversity
  • Listen to understand with empathy
  • Be humbly grateful for all the gifts of this life

Marjorie has many hobbies, like painting, sewing and beading. However, she finds little time for these creative outlets at this time of my life. Instead, Marjorie finds herself retreating to the garden, nurturing plants and digging in the ground for the short time it isn’t frozen solid. Alaska winters are long and the summers are short, especially in the northern interior. Marjorie loves painting with flowers, seeing things grow and eating fresh food. She fears gardening may become an obsession because she enjoys it so much.

Marjorie loves theatre and is currently working backstage for the Fairbanks Drama Association’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace. She is the property mistress making sure all the props are in place and ready, and the stage is set for each scene. Marjorie played Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire and Mrs. Gibbs in Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Our Town. She enjoys it and says, “It takes a great deal of time, but really keeps your mind sharp!”

Marjorie’s Advice for Young People:

  • If you are young and unfettered after college, try a job that gets you out of your boots and living in a different part of the country for a bit.
  • Try new things, exotic food, new music, a new hiking trail.
  • Put yourself in places to experience other cultures, make new friends and see how you fit in a global context.
  • People don’t work for one company for thirty years anymore, what you learn in college should prepare you for many employment opportunities and the next generation will find that the ability to adapt to change is one of their greatest assets.
  • With the above in mind, make sure the road you find yourself on doesn’t keep you trapped in a rut!

Marjorie will continue to be my role model and mentor not just for her business acumen, but also for her kind and generous heart. She blows my mind with all of the knowledge she has about Alaska Native business and tribal issues. Marjorie has proven that with hard work, patience and drive, you can have it all. It’s people like Marjorie that are forging the way for other Alaska Native people, especially women.

Ana Basee’ Marjorie!

Marjorie Merry Grunin is Koyukon and Gwich’in Athabascan, and grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her mother, Renee Evans Merry, was born in Rampart (a small village along the Yukon River) to Peter and Kitty Evans. Renee attended Mount Edgecumbe and became a dental assistant, which is how she met Marjorie’s father, Pete Merry. Pete was a pilot flying a Norseman on floats for Alaska Coastal when they met. He flew Renee and the dentist she was accompanying out to villages in the Aleutians. Pete later transferred to Wien and was one of a handful of pilots flying out of Barrow in the late fifties. They moved to Fairbanks in 1962, then to Anchorage when Wien moved their crews down in 1976.

Marjorie was born in Fairbanks and spent the first few years of her life in Barrow and Bettles. She and her sister, Jeannette, grew up with the Shontz girls from Barrow as their closest friends. They still have ties to Barrow and Bettles to this day. Marjorie currently lives in Fairbanks and owns property in Rampart, where she fishes subsistence with her family.

Marjorie served as a director for her village corporation, Baan o yeel kon Corporation, for a number of years and in 2004 was recognized as Shareholder of the Year. Marjorie is the General Manager of Minto Development Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Seth’De’Ya’Ah Corporation (the ANCSA village corporation for the federally recognized Native Village of Minto). In addition, she also is the owner of Perspicacity Contract Services since 2003. Prior to that, she gained extensive administrative experience working for a number of companies in Alaska, Nebraska and California. Marjorie has more than 28 years of management experience.

Marjorie is a former Vestry Board Member for St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and a member of the Bishop’s Finance Committee for the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. She also served as the Hospice of the Tanana Valley Board of Directors. Marjorie currently serves as a member of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Urban & Rural Affairs Committee.  She went to school outside and holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of Nebraska and a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Colorado, Graduate School of Public Affairs.