Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Tatiana Ticknor – Champion for Change

Tatiana Ticknor. Courtesy of CNAY
Tatiana Ticknor. Photo courtesy of CNAY

Tatiana Ticknor is Yup’ik, Tlingit and Dena’ina Athabascan. She is 16 years old and lives in Anchorage. I’ve watched Tatiana grow up through the eyes of her mother, Jean Sam-Kiunya. Jean is the daughter of my former co-worker, David Sam. Jean’s mother is Marilyn Balluta, an Athabascan linguist and educator. Tatiana had some powerful role models in her life. This year, Tatiana was selected as a 2015 Champion for Change by the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY).

CNAY posted, “Tatiana Ticknor is a high school sophomore and serves as a “Community Doer” for First Alaskans Institute. In this position, Tatiana engages and motivates her peers to get involved in community action, promotes culture and language preservation, and identifies opportunities to incorporate elder participation in community activities.”

“Native Youth should be confident of their identity. I want to help knock out stereotypes. These outcomes need to and will change in my community, even if it takes years.” – Tatiana Ticknor

I sat down with Tatiana to learn more about her. She is a very poised young lady with a welcoming smile. Tatiana is a member of a number of Alaska Native dance groups in Anchorage, including East High School dance group, Acilquq, Alaska Native Heritage Center youth dance group and Rafael Jimmie’s dance group. Tatiana says dancing is “fun and relaxing and a way to free your mind.” She enjoys dancing and appreciates that no one will judge you for how you dance. Her younger brother, Samuel, also dances in some of the same groups. It took her a while to learn some the Yup’ik dances, but it became easier once she got the hang of it.

Tatiana created a Facebook page to teach Dena’ina Athabascan words and phrases. It is called, Dena’ina Word of the Day. She posts videos about once a week. I’m impressed with her willingness to teach as she is learning. Tataina mostly learns Dena’ina words from her cheda grandmother, Marilyn, and the rest is self-taught. She and her grandmother can have conversations in Dena’ina. She used to attend languages classes held by her cheda.

Tatiana participated in a language game at the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders and Youth Conference. They played a game of musical chairs and you had to follow Inupiaq words for go, hurry up and sit down to participate. Making language learning fun is a great way to get the younger people to participate. Tatiana also understands a little bit of Yup’ik from her dad. While she doesn’t speak the language, she understands it. Tatiana’s nickname is Udla, which means older sister in Dena’ina.

Sports also keeps Tatiana occupied. She played softball and enjoys meeting old friends from when she was younger. Tatiana is also involved in the Native Youth Olympic games. She practices through the winter and competes in the Eskimo and Indian stick pulls, kneel jump and other games.

As you can see, Tatiana keeps herself occupied with many things throughout the year. I asked her for some advice to share with her peers and parents.

Tatiana’s Tips for Youth

  • If you have an idea, strive to do it.
  • If you want to do something, make sure you have the time and motivation.
  • Ask for help.
  • Networking is key to getting your word out there.
  • Try for opportunities. If you don’t get accepted into something, keep on trying. Don’t give up.

Tatiana’s Tips for Parents

  • Try not to let your children down. Parents give kids their self-confidence.
  • Always support them.
  • Let them be themselves. Each kid has their own way and how they do things.
  • Strive to keep their culture alive.
Tatiana Ticknor and other CNAY youth sat down with President Obama at the 2015 Tribal Nations Conference. Courtesy of Jean Sam-Kiunya
Tatiana Ticknor and other CNAY youth sat down with President Obama at the 2015 Tribal Nations Conference. Courtesy of Jean Sam-Kiunya

First Alaskans Institute’s Community Doers conference was a great way for Tatiana to get connected with others and she has found the staff to be great mentors. Staff gave her tips on public speaking.

When she attended the Center for Native American Youth event in Washington, DC earlier this year, she learned about youth in Indian Country. She also became friends with other youth and wants to keep making changes in Indian Country. Tatiana serves on CNAY’s Youth Advisory Board and participating in the White House Tribal Nations Conference hosted by President Barack Obama. The CNAY leaders are serving as Native Youth Delegates for the conference and will join elected leaders of the 567 federally recognized tribes and for nation-to-nation dialogues with members of the President’s Cabinet on critical issues affecting Native American tribes.

Tatiana plans to attend college and maybe study to be a biochemist or computer engineer. She is a role model for youth and truly an inspiration. Tatiana’s final thoughts were, “You don’t really know you are making a difference, but you are. Anyone can make a difference. Make an action plan and start to make a difference.” I know Tatiana’s family, friends and supporters could not be more proud of her.

President Barack Obama speaks with 4 Native youth -- Tatiana Ticknor (Yup'ik, Tlingit, Dena'ina), Brayden White (St. Regis Mohawk), Blossom Johnson (Navajo Nation), and Philip Douglas (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma) about issues including higher education, poverty and resources, health care, and racism in schools. The conversation is being moderated by Jude Schimmel (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation). Photo courtesy of CNAY
President Barack Obama speaks with four Native youth – Tatiana Ticknor (Yup’ik, Tlingit, Dena’ina), Brayden White (St. Regis Mohawk), Blossom Johnson (Navajo Nation), and Philip Douglas (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma) about issues including higher education, poverty and resources, health care, and racism in schools. The conversation is being moderated by Jude Schimmel (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation). Photo courtesy of CNAY
Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Entertainment

Chanda Simon – Miss WEIO 2014

Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) 2014, Chanda Simon. Courtesy photo
Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) 2014, Chanda Simon. Courtesy photo

Once upon time, a long, long time ago, I ran for Miss WEIO. While I didn’t win, it was a great experience to go through. I learned a lot about myself, Koyukon Athabascan people and how to bead. My family helped to make traditional Athabascan regalia and I learned to sing the Indian song, Good Bye My Sunny. I still look up to and admire the other ladies I ran with, like Tara Sweeney (Miss WEIO that year), Mary Sattler, Jessie Downey, Charlene Ostbloom, and more.

My niece, Chanda Simon, of Ester was the 2014 Miss WEIO. Chanda is Koyukon Athabascan and Yup’ik. She is the daughter of Chris and Letha Simon. Chris’ hometown is Huslia, and Letha’s is Bethel. Chris and I are cousins. Chanda is an accomplished young lady and is working to obtain her bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Chanda plans to obtain a master’s degree in business after she finishes her undergrad studies. After college, she plans to works in a finance department in a Native corporation and ultimately become a chief financial officer.

WEIO stands for the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. WEIO is held in Fairbanks each year in July. Check out some photos on Facebook of the 2014 Miss WEIO Pageant.

I caught up with Chanda in Anchorage and asked her about her experience. When asked why she decided to run for Miss WEIO, she said she wanted to become more involved in the community. It was a challenge for her to become comfortable speaking in front of people. Chanda’s dad told her that it gets easier over time, and she did in fact become more comfortable.

Chanda Simon and her family traveled to Huslia in August. Left-right: Randall, Christopher, Letha, Chanda and Chanel. Courtesy photo
Chanda Simon and her family traveled to Huslia in August. Left-right: Randall, Christopher, Letha, Chanda and Chanel. Courtesy photo

Chanda was not sure how well she would do in the competition. She said, ‘What helped me overcome that is I knew I was entering with a good heart and the right expectations, and it is the experience that matters.” That is definitely the right attitude to have when competing for Miss WEIO. It is a great learning experience and you really have to become an ambassador for your culture.

Chanda Simon plays the fiddle to Eagle Island Blues during the Miss WEIO talent presentation. Chanda's brother, Randall, accompanied her on the guitar. Courtesy photo
Chanda Simon plays the fiddle to Eagle Island Blues during the Miss WEIO talent presentation. Chanda’s brother, Randall, accompanied her on the guitar. Courtesy photo

For the talent competition, Chanda sang and played the violin to the song, Eagle Island Blues. While she and her siblings have played violin in front of an audience, it was the first time she sang for in front of people. Chanda is especially grateful for her parents, siblings and her aunt Geraldine for supporting her throughout the process.

Miss WEIO serves as a role model for many Native girls across the state and to others with educational and career goals. Chanda says, “As I’m getting a little older and I’ve had more life experiences, I feel like I can help others see they are strong enough to get through hard times in life.” Chanda encourages other young people to follow their dreams and work toward their goals. She gained a lot already from her experience and encourages others to try for the Miss WEIO crown in the future.

“Get out and do it. It really is the experience that is important, not where you place. You will definitely gain so much experience in public speaking, and become even stronger in your culture.” – Chanda Simon, Miss WEIO 2014

Chanda Simon and her maternal grandfather Sammy Chimegalrea, aka Taata. Courtesy photo
Chanda Simon and her maternal grandfather Sammy Chimegalrea, aka Taata. Courtesy photo

Chanda is grateful to the community for supporting her and other young people. Many people had kind and supportive words for her, and she especially appreciated them when she was really nervous. In April 2015, Chanda will participate in the Miss Indian World pageant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She looks forward to the new experience and representing WEIO and Alaska Native people.

“Value your education. It might not be the most exciting thing to focus on, but it is something that can never be taken away from you.” – Chanda Simon, Miss WEIO 2014

Chanda Simon is an inspiring young lady. I wish her the best in her future endeavors. Judging by Chanda’s accomplishments so far, I would say our future is bright with future leaders like her.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Entertainment

Mary Lou Rock – An Alaska Native Actress

Mary Lou Rock wears traditional Yup'ik regalia. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Rock
Mary Lou Rock wears traditional Yup’ik regalia. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Rock

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 Rock is an Alaska Native actress. Photo by BJP Photography
Mary Lou Rock is an Alaska Native actress. Photo by BJP Photography

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 Lou Rock performs in a play called, Assimilation, by Jack Dalton. Courtesy photo
Mary Lou Rock performs in a play called, Assimilation, by Jack Dalton. Courtesy photo

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 Lou Rock and her Dadda. Courtesy photo
Mary Lou Rock and her Dadda. Courtesy photo

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 Lou Rock accepts a diploma from RAHI in 1991. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Mary Lou Rock accepts a diploma from RAHI in 1991. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

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.
  • Have fun!

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 Rock performs at the Native Voices at the Autry. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Rock
Mary Lou Rock performs at the Native Voices at the Autry. Photo courtesy of 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.