According toShyanne Beatty, American Indian and Alaska Native media professionals make up less than 1% of all of the media professionals in the US. I was happy to see many media professionals working behind the scenes during AFN week. I want to celebrate those who are working as journalists, producers, anchors, hosts, writers and emcees through some pictures. You may recognize some faces. My apologies in advance for not including everyone.
I spoke with Sharon McConnell and Anna Sattler for a bit during AFN. Sharon broadcasted a total of 23 years and Anna broadcasted at total of nine years. Sharon stressed they were broadcasting the proceedings of the AFN convention. Both Sharon and Anna enjoy hosting the proceedings of the AFN convention and Quyana nights. During Quyana Nights, dance groups are interviewed after their performances. Many of the groups fund raise year round to get to AFN.
The AFN Convention is the largest gathering of indigenous people in Alaska. Sharon and Anna were impressed the President Obama addressed AFN two times. Alllison Warden mentored a group of young ambassadors and emcees. Two of the youth worked with Sharon and Anna during the AFN week broadcast. Allison Warden, a Native entertainer, has mentored youth for the past three years. Sharon says, “They all did an amazing job!” The young emcees got to conduct interviews and emcee on stage.
Thank you to all of the broadcasters, emcees, journalists, camera operators, and everyone else who made successful broadcasts and news coverage of the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders & Youth Conference and Alaska Federation of Natives Convention! Thank you for taking the time and investing in the next generation. Kudos to those up and coming youth for stepping up as emcees and ambassadors!
One thing I love about the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Convention is the number of Native voices spoken and heard. Some resonate and some are louder than others. Tough topics are raised, discussed and acted upon. I am still processing all of the things I heard this week. I shared photos from the Hunt Fish Share and Vote Rally and the signing of the Alaska Native language bill. It is awesome to hear some of the messages from strong voices from around Alaska bring up topics that are important to them.
Some of the topics to bring up and generate meaningful discussion are sometimes the most difficult to talk about. Those topics include domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse and substance abuse. Yet, I heard some brave youth, adults and Elders speaking up about these topics this week first at the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders & Youth Conference and at the AFN Convention.
The Tanana 4-H group spoke up at the Elders & Youth conference and the AFN Convention. Each of the youth had their own powerful statement to share. They are giving a face and voice to some of these issues plaguing our Alaskan community. They are not being silent about their experience. I commend them for raising the issues. Watch their video on theAlaska Dispatch News site.
Cynthia Erickson spoke about being a part of the Choose Respect campaign. She said something like, “Choose Respect is not just a day. It is something we have to work on every day.” What a great reminder that some of these complex issues are not something that can be tackled overnight, but they can be one day at a time.
Another strong voice throughout the week is Samuel Johns, an Alaska Native rapper and motivational speaker. On Friday night’s Quyana night, he debuted his music video for his song about domestic violence. Samuel is using his powerful voice to speak up about domestic violence at as many venues as he can.
Wake Up (Music Video) – Samuel Johns feat. Blaack. via Muhnee OndaTrack on YouTube:
“I’m very proud of Samuel. He’s grown in so many ways in these last few years. I’m proud that he is using his amazing capability to move mountains around him, like in this video. His influential advocacy towards what he believes in is awe inspiring. Keep on keeping on Samuel! Mahsi’ choo!” – Roxanne Peter
The 2014 Elders & Youth Conference theme was “Get Up! Stand Up!”The 2014 AFN Convention theme is “Rise as One.“It is tough to get up on stage and share your message. We cannot stand by and let their message go by in vain. Let’s figure out a way to keep the dialogue going and continue to find ways to tackle some of these issues. Thank you to those who bravely shared their personal stories to prompt and motivate change. They really give a voice to thousands of others who are too afraid to speak up.
My friend, Sharon Hildebrand, recently interviewed Sharon McConnell, an Alaska Native broadcaster. Sharon agreed to share her interview on the Athabascan Woman blog.
To be the first Native broadcaster in Alaska is not something many can attest to or reporting on the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) for 22 years, but Sharon McConnell can. Ms. McConnell was a public figure before she could even graduate from high school. I recall watching her on television as young child growing up in the village and thinking, ‘wow, this woman speaks so intelligently and an Alaska Native’. Ms. McConnell grew up in Bettles and Evansville with her five older sisters, including twin Shirley, who is a few minutes older than she. I caught up with Ms. McConnell behind the scenes at the AFN Convention during a few minutes of down time in the green room.
Ms. McConnell mentored me into hosting the AFN broadcast three years ago. The following is information that she kindly shared amidst the many television monitors, sounding equipment and about ten chairs all shoved into a small back room, called our “green room”.
The broadcasting of AFN is an important part of communicating the issues and bridging the gap between those who are unable to travel to the actual convention. This broadcast of the convention allows many who are in the villages or anyone who would like to watch from the convenience of their living room or office. As this live broadcast continued of the AFN and the meetings was called to order, I convened a different kind of session with Ms. McConnell back in the green room for our interview session. Although the day was mid-day afternoon and we were both fairly tired after doing taping all day, I found as the interview progressed it went by fairly quickly as I found her story engrossing.
Can you share some background information to growing up?
I am originally from Bettles/Evansville and my mom was originally from Noorvik and so I am Inupiaq and my dad is originally from Washington State. Bettles, people came down from the Kobuk area over from Alatna, so there was a mix of Athabascan and Inupiaq. Evansville is the actual traditional village and Bettles is the non-native settlement that was established when the State of AK was stationed there and now it is primarily national parks service and guides. My parents are Helen and Mac McConnell and I was one of five girls (the youngest with twin Shirley).
What from your childhood encouraged you to go into broadcast? There were two things, one that I strongly remember is Lael Morgan a renowned journalist, came through Bettles and she was doing a story. I thought, ‘wow, to be able to talk to people’ and be a woman. I thought, ‘I can do that’ and to be able to do the Native Story, that really sparked an interest, I was about 10 years old.
I also recall, going with my parents to visit the elders and visiting, having a cup of tea. I remember going with mom and listening to their stories. Sitting there listening and learning the history of our village and our relatives. These two things started it off.
What was your first experience like in moving away from a small community? We lived in Bettles until we were four years old, because our sisters had to go to high school. We moved back into Fairbanks, because there was no high school in the village. We moved back when we were 11 or 12 and we had to move back when we had to go to high school. That was a shock. The attitude was still there, that Natives were dumb and less educated. Both Shirley and I both had an attitude of ‘well, we’ll show them’ and I actually graduated a year early.
I remember when we were on the boarding home program and we had to go to the clinic. Well, they tried to put us all on birth control, because they had that mentality that Native girls were all going to get pregnant. Oh boy, did my sister Shirley ball them out. All that put a spark in us and got us out of our comfort zone to not be shy, we had this attitude that ‘we’ll show them’. I was in year book, and I took many extra classes and we tried our hardest.
Within the mixed community there was a respect in the community as my dad was with the FAA and he built a home on the river. It was intermingled but people respected each other. Especially in Bettles it is one of the coldest places in the state, people really helped each other out.
When I went to school there were only nine students in a one room school. There was only one teacher and we were the oldest in the class. We had to challenge ourselves, I loved to read, loved to write. We had to take algebra when we moved to Fairbanks and that was hard to learn. I also took Latin for several years in high school. Shirley and I always joke around that we learned Latin, but we didn’t learn our Native language. However, in growing up we heard mostly Inupiaq being spoken in our community.
How did you get your break in broadcast? That is a good question, during high school, there was a program in the Johnson O’ Malley program for the Fairbanks Native Association, called Project Now. This is what also helped me to graduate early and we got credit for doing these extra activities like photography and videographer. There was even an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act class that I took and this was only three years after its passing, so I was able to write a story for the River Times and I also got to write for the Tundra Times which was still in existence then.
From the Tundra Times to KIAK, minority hire was big thing then. KIAK was looking for someone and I did an Alaska Native Report every day. I did radio every day and from there, met my soon-to-be husband, got married and moved to Anchorage. All these stations were looking for people and I got a job at KIMO television channel. I began anchoring at 18 or 19 years old. It was called RATNET then, instead of ARCS. I believe I was the second news anchor for the statewide broadcast.
The broad contributions that Ms. McConnell has provided to the advancement of Natives and for woman in journalism is a great one indeed. I asked her later what her plans are and she calmly said that she will see what is in store for her next, but from the sounds she is no rush. I could see that she has a deep adoration for her grandchildren as they came to visit us in the “green room”.
Ms. McConnell was humble about her contributions to Alaska Native advancement. She did not share this, but Ms. McConnell also created an award winning Production Company called, Blueberry Productions, she was also the past Executive Director of the Doyon Foundation as well as a past VP of Communication for Doyon, Limited. The history behind Ms. McConnell and her contribution to our state is not one that will be soon forgotten.
Upon interviewing her, I got this feeling that she is a resource that is not being utilized to its fullest and everyone needs to know more about her contributions, but perhaps that is her plan in not wanting to be boastful but enjoy that time with her fellow AFNers every year, but also have the time to spend with her grandchildren. Ms. McConnell has a love that she shared and was willing to share with me during AFN.
I met Agatha Erickson a couple years ago at a conference in Dillingham, Alaska. She spoke on behalf of the Begich Administration at the conference. Agatha is originally from Kaltag, but has lived in both the Interior and Southeast Alaska. Her father, Arne Erickson, is a teacher. Agatha is the rural liaison for Senator Mark Begich.
Agatha’s bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in Native American Studies gave her a great foundation for policy work. Agatha’s senior honors project was on the evolution of subsistence law in Alaska. She studied each major law, such as statehood, ANCSA and ANILCA and how they affected the generations of her family’s subsistence practices. Agatha comes from a large family, her mother Susan Solomon, is one of nine siblings.
Agatha was hired by the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) as the communications director after college. She got a crash course in tribal politics. Jerry Isaac, TCC president/CEO, taught Agatha the intricacies of community outreach and working with tribal governments. She learned about how to communicate and work with people and communities across the Interior.
Agatha’s education and her work with TCC prepared her for her role as Senator Mark Begich’s rural liaison. Even with preparation, she faced a steep learning curve with the daily inner-workings of a political office. Agatha discovered the work is very fast pace, responding to constituents, planning events, writing memos and keeping up with current issues. Despite the fast pace of a Senate office, she also learned patience waiting for the deliberative Senate to move on policy. She is learning more about the many issues faced by rural Alaskans, like the energy crisis, access to health care, education funding and food security. She asserts that although they are tough issues to be faced, there are solutions and there are great community leaders.
Agatha enjoys traveling and learning about different communities across the state. Agatha said, “There is so much diversity in our state.” She is most familiar with the interior and southeast regions having grown up in them. Agatha says she is the eyes and ears on the ground for Senator Begich.
It was a challenge for her to move from the interior to Anchorage. Agatha missed her family and friends in the interior. After about six months, she felt less lonely as she built connections and made new friends and found her Native circle.
With such a fast-paced day job, I asked Agatha how she keeps grounded. She runs on the Anchorage trails, and hikes around southcentral Alaska. In the winter time, she enjoys skiing. Agatha also practices what she calls ‘urban subsistence’, including fishing, berry picking, cooking traditional Native dishes with a twist (testing out different ingredients and cooking styles).
If you are interested in getting involved in politics, whether it be by running for any type of office or working in a governmental office, Agatha recommends getting an internship. It is the first step in starting a career in in the government and to learning how it operates. What you see in the media is only a small percentage of what actually happens behind the scenes.
Agatha has built a strong camaraderie with other Alaska Natives who are serving representatives and senators. She has found that even though their offices may have differing ideas and policies, they are all serving for the same purpose of the overall betterment of Alaska Native people. Despite long hours and hard work, they formed a strong bond and remain to be close friends.
Over the past few years, Agatha has also had to build her public speaking skills. She has studied other public speakers and she has also had a lot of practice.
Agatha’s Advice on Public Speaking
Practice makes perfect. Get comfortable with public speaking.
Find a way to deal with your nervousness. People can tell you are nervous. Agatha forces herself to breathe deeply before speaking to calm herself down.
Speak five times slower than your mind is going. Consciously slowing down will help you to process your thoughts and it will also give the audience a chance to digest the information you are sharing.
Plan to share three main points. Any less may be too short, and any more may bore people.
Be ready to respond to questions. Be honest if you don’t know the answer to a question, but make sure to let the person know you’ll get back to them with an answer.
I admire Agatha’s ability to be an ambassador for rural Alaskans, Native and non-Native. I appreciate her willingness to learn more about topics. I also admire her ability to deal with stress through physical activity. That is something I wish I learned a long time ago. Agatha is a great example that you can go far with an education and just going out and doing it.
I met Mary Lou Rock at the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) in 1991. We both attended RAHI, a six-week college preparatory course. I remember Mary Lou as an outgoing person who always had a smile for everyone. I ran into Mary Lou about a year ago at a RAHI Reunion. I was impressed to see that she is pursuing her acting career. Mary Lou is currently living in Los Angeles. I caught up with her during her recent visit to Anchorage.
Mary Lou decided to move to LA after her divorce earlier this year. She felt she needed a change and to be on her own. Mary Lou had been to LA before and fell in love with it. Jean Bruce Scott, Producing Artistic Director and Co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry in LA, was involved in producing Cikiuteklluku and saw her perform. Jean told Mary about staged readings at the Autry in May and asked if would be interested. Mary was scared, but agreed to attend.
Mary Lou admires Jean and says, “The fact that she saw something special in me gave me the confidence to do make the move to LA. I can’t express how grateful I am to her for that.”
Mary Lou always dreamed of becoming an actress, but she didn’t think it was possible. She was painfully shy from junior high school through college. Sometimes her stomach hurt just talking to people, even those she knew. Mary says, “It wasn’t until I worked at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and felt culturally whole that I came out of my shell.” She discovered she loved talking to people from all over the world. Not long after that, she did a voiceover for the American Lung Association of Alaska and felt a sense of excitement she had never felt before. People encouraged her to do more of that but she didn’t know where to start.
Mary auditioned for a speaking role in Big Miracle with Drew Barrymore, but didn’t get a part. Then, she was called to be a stand in for another actor. Even though she wasn’t going to be on camera, she was filled with excitement to be on set and enjoyed watching people buzzing around her who were taking light readings and making sure the set was just right. Mary says, “I guess my happiness made an impression.” She was called in again a couple weeks later to be a background actor with no lines.
They didn’t end up using her, but during a break between shots she was standing in an open space and the director Ken Kwapis rushed passed her, looked at her, and said, “Hi Mary!” Mary couldn’t believe it. She had never met him before.
On the third and final time, Mary got called in as background on the last day of shooting. She says, “When I got to the set, Mr. Kwapis’ face lit up and he greeted me.” Mary’s heart jumped! She was playing a hotel clerk. As a background actor (or extra) you have to mouth words and not actually say them so the microphone doesn’t pick up your voice. As she was doing that Mr. Kwapis said, “Give her lines.” One of the crew put a mic on her and whispered, “You don’t know how lucky you are. Actors work in Hollywood for years and never get a speaking role.”
Mary felt like she was in a dream world. Her shot was the last of the day. She had at least 20 people watching her as she walked in the door and said her line. She was in heaven in front of the camera. Afterward, Mr. Kwapis gave her a big hug. That was the day she thought, “Maybe I’ve got something. Maybe I can be an actress.”
It was because of that speaking part that Mary was able to become part of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG, now SAG-AFTRA). Mary says, “I will be forever thankful to Mr. Kwapis for giving me lines, but mostly for remembering my name and inspiring me to fulfill my dream.”
Being an actor has brought Mary to life. For years, Mary suffered from extreme fatigue, and it got so bad at one point that she couldn’t work for two years. There were days she could barely move. She felt useless. However, through treatment, changes in her diet and getting regular exercise, she began to recover.
It wasn’t until her first lead role in the play, Cikiuteklluku, that Mary’s life truly changed. She was working 8-12 hour days and says, “For the first time since I was 12, I felt energized.” From then on, Mary got better and better, and felt like she was doing what she was meant to do.
Mary’s most widely known role is probably the part she played in a 2012 Super Bowl commercial.
Locally, she gets the most recognition the health education video called, “What’s The Big Deal?” because it plays at the Alaska Native hospital. Mary also had lead roles in several theater productions.
I asked Mary what she does to prepare for roles, and she exclaims, “Memorize! Memorize! Memorize!” After she memorizes lines, then she can have fun with it. Mary says, “I pray as I get into my roles, that I will do my best to honor the story, the writer, the director, and my fellow actors.”
Mary says, “I am not the star of the show. The story is the star and we all work together to tell it.” Mary also does her research. Like when she played Raven in The Winter Bear, she watch ravens around Anchorage. Mary studied how they moved and talked to each other and read about their behavior.
Mary’s family and friends are her biggest influences, and her parents are her main mentors. She says, “They taught me that character is your most important attribute and to always treat people with kindness and love.” Mary’s mentors also include Jean Bruce Scott from Native Voices at the Autry and Ken Kwapis, director of Big Miracle. She says, “They both believed in me enough to take a chance on me.” Mary’s fellow actors are also her mentors and says, “I always amazed how much I learn from them.”
One of Mary’s biggest challenges was not knowing where to start. Mary says, “It is especially hard in LA where you are one of thousands and thousands of people pursuing acting.” Another challenge includes promoting herself. Mary says, “Being Native, you are not supposed to talk about yourself.” She overcame that challenge when one of her mentors told her not to look at it as promoting herself but happily offering her best to the world. “That change in perspective really helped me to become more confident in myself,” says Mary.
“Being Inupiaq/Yupik Eskimo has been a huge advantage to getting roles in Alaska. All of my characters locally have had ties to being Native. In LA it’s a different story. Since I am half white and they do not have a lot of Eskimo roles and I do not look particularly Native American Indian, I get categorized as Caucasian. But it doesn’t mean I get fewer roles, just not the ones that are specifically Native.” – Mary Lou Rock
Mary’s advice for aspiring actors:
Do what your heart tells you.
Being an actor is not glamorous most of the time. It’s a lot of work, long hours, dealing with rejection on a regular basis, and there is no steady paycheck unless you make it big.
If you do decide acting is right for you, make sure you have boundaries and stick to them. There are a lot of people who will try to take advantage of you. Surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart.
Network and meet people who share your passion.
Mary Lou is living her dream and enjoys acting. She says, “The exhilaration I get from acting is well worth the hard work. I did not go to Hollywood to become famous. I don’t need to make it big. I am happy and I’ve already made it.” I admire Mary for her tenacity to move all the way to LA to live out her dream. I also admire her positive attitude in every role she plays. Mary is one brave Alaska Native woman! Go Mary!
ABOUT MARY LOU ROCK
Mary Lou “Baayin” Rock is from Shaktoolik, a small Inupiaq village in northwest Alaska. As a girl her dream of being an actress seemed unattainable, but upon moving to Anchorage she began doing voiceover work and appearing in local commercials. It wasn’t until her involvement in Everybody Loves Whales that her love for acting was realized and received union status with the Screen Actors Guild. She has since appeared in “What’s the Big Deal”, a short film for the Alaska Native Medical Center, and “Sled”, the 2012 Super Bowl commercial for Suzuki.
In her theatrical debut, she played Liza in the November, 2012 developmental production of Holly Stanton’s Cikiuteklluku: Giving Something Away. Her latest roles include Teacher in Jack Dalton’s Assimilation and Raven/Miranda in The Winter Bear further nurtured her love for the art of visual storytelling. She recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career where she was featured in readings at Native Voices at the Autry.