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.