Bristol Bay students sing and dance at the 2022 Elders and Youth conference
This wasn’t Mai Webb’s first time attending the annual Elders and Youth Conference, hosted by the First Alaskans Institute, when Elders and young Alaska Native people from across the state gather to connect and celebrate their cultures. But it was Webb’s first time performing at the conference Natives Got Talent show, or any show.
“It was the first time I’d performed on stage ever in my life,” Webb said in a phone interview on the last day of the event.
Webb is 15 years old and in 10th grade at Aleknagik School. Singing has always been a big part of their life.
“But I’ve never actually had the confidence to sing in front of an audience,” Webb said.
That changed when actor D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, from the show Reservation Dogs, was interviewed during the conference along with activist and supermodel Quannah Chasinghorse and actor Martin Sensmeier (the interview starts around 5:22:00 in this recording of the conference). Woon-A-Tai told the crowd that it’s important for Native people to be fully represented in the media; he said the spotlight is scary, but he gets out there anyway to show others it can be done.
“Even though I’m scared as hell and don’t want to go out there 'cause I’m honestly a little bit stage shy, I do it because I want to see people see us on stage and get inspired by it,” he said.
“I took that to heart," Webb said. "I decided that even though this is terrifying and I do not like going up on stage at all, I decided to do it.”
Webb got up on stage, in front of a big crowd, to sing a song by Dutch musician Duncan Laurence.
“I’m going to be singing ‘Arcade.’ I’m from Aleknagik," Webb said to cheers of support from the audience. "My Yup’ik name is Cucuaq. Here we go.”
Webb's voice hung in the air as they sang a capella. People in the audience waved their lit-up phones overhead. Webb said it was an amazing experience.
“I’m really proud of myself for taking the time to do that,” they said.
After two years of virtual conferences, Webb said, it meant a lot to meet in person. One of Webb’s favorite sessions was when attendees separated into breakout groups for men, women and LGBTQIA people.
“I went into the LGBTQIA. It was really amazing to listen to everyone’s stories and the experiences that everyone has had," Webb said. "It was great to see people who are grouped together and talking. It was amazing.”
The other Bristol Bay youth representative, Bailee Olson, is 14. She had heard about the conference from her cousins and her mom but she hadn’t attended until this year.
“I just really wanted to do it ‘cause I heard there was really amazing Unangax̂ dancers over here," she said. "I actually got to learn some of my eastern dialect from my grandpa’s side of the family of Unangax̂ peoples.”
Olson said it was actually because of her passion for dancing that she was chosen as one of the youth representatives, backed by a supportive Dillingham community.
“Everyone from Dillingham was like ‘If you don’t raise your hand I’m going to nominate you,'" she said. "So they had Renee Roque stand up and nominate me as the youth chair."
Olson said people were excited about her efforts to create more opportunities for dancing in Dillingham.
“We were trying to push for a half an hour at the end of the day on Friday when we get out at 2 o’clock to teach the school Native dancing," she said, adding, "I helped my mom and Norma Hiratsuka put together the Curyung Wolverine Dance Group this past year.”
Both Webb and Olson look forward to pursuing their passions back home.
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