Raina Thiele: Alaska Natives share culture with President Obama

President Barack Obama met Alannah Hurley, the executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, left, and elder Mae Syvrud during his visit to Dillingham in Bristol Bay. September 2, 2015. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

Raina Thiele, the Associate Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement at the White House, grew up in Alaska and accompanied President Barack Obama on his historic trip to the 49th state. She shares her thoughts on the White House blog:
I grew up in a pretty uniquely “Alaskan” way. My summers were spent subsistence and commercial fishing for wild salmon, salmon that depended on the health of the environment to flourish. In my mother’s small Dena’ina Athabascan village, I’d help her and my grandmother filet and smoke salmon for the winter in the traditional Dena’ina way. Other summers I spent commercial fishing in Bristol Bay with my Dad on a salmon gillnet boat. Whether for subsistence or economic reasons, salmon and other natural resources were the lifeblood of my family, and the same stands true for many of Alaska’s people.

Reflecting on my life thus far, it was Alaska’s land and natural resources, coupled with the strong Dena’ina and Yup’ik cultural values instilled in me by my parents and grandparents—humility, hard work, generosity—that have allowed me to make it as far as I have in life. I often joke that I was fortified by a diet of moose, salmon, and berries, and that I would probably survive a zombie apocalypse with my Bear Grylls-style survival skills. But these natural resources do more than just fortify the body, they fortify the spirit, and they are essential to cultures that have thrived for millennia. My connection to my Athabascan and Yup’ik roots is the well from which I draw strength when faced with obstacles that would be otherwise insurmountable. And it’s this grounding, along with the guidance of my parents and grandparents, which has allowed me to make the journey from rural Alaska, as a first generation college kid, to the Ivy League and, most recently, to the White House.

This is why accompanying my boss, my President, Barack Obama, to Alaska was the proudest moment of my life. Hands down. And why it was such a privilege to be part of the White House team that helped orchestrate the trip from A to Z.

Get the Story:
Raina Thiele: The President’s Trip to Alaska: Reflections from an Alaskan Staffer at the White House (White House Blog 10/5)

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