Representing Indigenous Voices
Photo — Minik Bidstrup
Indigenous Peoples comprise less than five percent of the world’s population, yet their traditions, learned through generations, protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. At SPACE10, we want to learn from this intergenerational wisdom and amplify these voices in imagining a collective future for people and the planet. With Ancestral Futures, we pass the mic to Inuk filmmaker and activist Aka Hansen, who curated a series of conversations with Indigenous changemakers from the Arctic region.
Aka is joined by Alice Qannik Glenn, an Iñupiaq journalist and podcaster. Alice comes from Utqiaġvik, an Iñupiat community at the northernmost edge of Alaska, but she currently lives and works on Dena’ina land in Anchorage. Alice’s podcast Coffee & Quaq is a celebration and exploration of contemporary Native life in urban Alaska. She explains the name: ‘Coffee keeps us woke, and quaq — the Iñupiaq word for raw fish — represents the Native lens’. Her work has been broadcast on radio stations across Alaska and Canada. As both Alice and Aka explore Indigenous self-image in their work, they discuss the importance of amplifying Native voices in the media.
Aka: Coffee & Quaq is a great name for a podcast. We also have the word quaq in Greenland, so we share some of the same words. I almost understand everything you say when you speak your native language because Iñupiat is a part of Inuit — we are cousins that share some of the same language, culture, and traditions. Can you talk a bit about Iñupiat history and culture?
Alice: There’s a long history of the Iñupiat people in the Arctic. We’ve been there for at least 10,000 years. Within the North Slope of Alaska, Utqiaġvik is one of eight villages. Although we might live in a challenging environment — the temperature ranges from -60 degrees F to up to 80 degrees F — our Iñupiat people are rich in culture and traditions, heavily based on family and kinship and a deep respect for nature.
I lean on Iñupiat values in times of conflict or uncertainty because they always lead me in the right direction. My favourite is humour. My other favourites are cooperation and resolution of conflict. Those things are really important when you have such a close-knit community and you’re living with one another and relying on one another to survive.
What happened during colonisation?
In the late 1700s, Yankee whalers from the northeast United States, and even as far south as South America, came to Alaska seeking resources. They used the oil of Baleen whales to create things before plastic existed. The commercialisation of whales and other sea mammals started at this time. That’s when our recorded western story started.
And then, there is the boarding school era and the introduction of disease and famine from visitors. Your name is Aka. In our language, the people we reference as Aka are grandmothers. In the early 1900s, the Spanish flu came and decimated some of our villages. Back then, Aka meant mother. But many mothers died, so babies were without mothers and they were left to call their grandmothers mum — Aka. So the translation now means grandmother.
Why did you start Coffee & Quaq and what was the journey for you?
I graduated from Embry Riddle Aeronautical Institute in 2014 and spent some years working at Kennedy Space Center. I felt like it was exciting work, but also lacking in some way. I was also really angry at that age, and I had come to realise that it was a culture shock. I was missing my language, I was missing my people, my food. People were constantly questioning me, and I was constantly having to explain myself. I struggled with my identity and where I belonged.
I ended up filling that void in my heart by coming back home. I was reconnecting to culture, to people, to my family.
I was close enough to be able to feel better and be able to understand more about myself in that way. At that time, I was reading the news every day. Everything I would see in the news was super negative towards Alaska Native people. This wasn’t the people and culture that I know. There’s a lot of joy, a lot of brilliance. But that wasn’t in the news I was reading.
So I thought, how cool would it be if someone would create a radio show for Alaska Native people? I was living in Anchorage, where there is a huge population of Alaska Native people from all over the state. I was feeling inspired and connected with them. I didn’t have to explain myself anymore. I would meet people and we’d have amazing conversations. I wished I could bottle that up and put it in my back pocket, and share it with people in different places. The more that we share those ideas, the better we all are to know and understand the world, as a whole.
For me, Coffee & Quaq has been a nice place to find people who think like me. And to also discover aspects of being Indigenous that I hadn’t reflected on. Why do you think it’s important that Indigenous Peoples have this representation?
I know the Iñupiat people to be amazing storytellers. Growing up, it was my dad and my older sister. They’re so animated. It made me into a good listener. In some ways, podcasting has made us more accessible as Native peoples. It feels like an Indigenous way of doing it. It’s natural for Iñupiat people to share stories, and to speak with one another in a meaningful way, but also in their own time. I sit down with people over Native food, we have a real conversation, and sometimes the microphones just fade away.
It takes a lot of trust to share some of these really intimate stories. People need to feel comfortable. I see myself in the people I’m interviewing, so it’s important for me to not exploit their stories, and to share it in a good way because of the history of suppression and exploitation.
What knowledge can we take from our ancestors that we can bring into the future?
Right now, I think it’s mostly about truth. I don’t think we are telling the truth in classrooms — or even at our dinner tables.
We are not telling the true history of what really happened to Indigenous people all over the world. Can we just say what really happened?
Things like the boarding school era and the decimation of villages due to famine and disease. The enslavement of Indigenous Peoples. There’s so much fun and so many great things to learn, but first, I would ask for a recognition of truth.
A warm thank you to Aka Hansen for this generous, seed-planting journey. Listen to the full conversation. Read abridged versions of Aka Hansen’s introduction to the series and conversations with Paninnguaq Lind, Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, and Sunná Nousuniemi. We’ve woven these stories together in Ancestral Futures.
Aka Hansen is an activist, mother, and Inuk filmmaker from Greenland. After gaining recognition in Greenland’s film and television industry, she founded Uilu, a production company on a mission to tell more Indigenous stories with Inuit voices. She has been active in recent debates on the decolonisation of Greenland.
Alice Qannik Glenn is an Iñupiaq born and raised in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. She hosts and produces the podcast Coffee & Quaq to celebrate and explore contemporary Native life in urban Alaska. She received honours from the Columbia Journalism Review for her series AK Natives on the Front Line, which highlights the adaptability and resilience of Iñupiat in the face of climate change.