Growing up in the village of Igiugig in the Bristol Bay region of southwestern Alaska, home to about 70 tribal members, Salmon was always the only student in her grade. She spent happy days at the feet of elders, soaking up language and traditions. Now, drawing on her many-faceted Dartmouth experience, she's documenting the history of her Native community and leading it into the future.
As tribal council president, Salmon is helping to launch eco-friendly tribal businesses. She’s also fostering language restoration and overseeing the construction of a cultural center. “We're breaking the mold in every direction as a tribe, and it's so fascinating,” Salmon tells host Jennifer Avellino '89. “Dartmouth set me up for a lifetime, including serving as president of an entire nation. It is the smallest, probably, in the world, but at least it can serve as a model for possibilities.”
Jennifer Avellino: Hi, everyone, and welcome to our 50 for 50 Podcast, 50 stories for 50 years, as we celebrate three major milestones in Dartmouth's history. As many of you know, and some of you can remember firsthand, 1972 was a pivotal year. Women joined the undergraduate community as Dartmouth students following several years of women exchange students on campus. The Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association, or BADA, is also entering its 50th year, and so is the Native American program. Three important anniversaries, and also, not a coincidence that so much happened during this critical time. I'm Jennifer Avellino, class of 1989, past president of the Dartmouth Alumni Council and a former senior producer at CNN. As a journalist, my early days were spent as the news director for WDCR, WFRD, Dartmouth Broadcasting. I've had the good fortune to meet and bring to the airwaves remarkable people over the years, and this podcast, in many ways, brings me home. Throughout this series, I'll be speaking with inspiring, influential, and fascinating Dartmouth alumni. They'll reflect on what it was like to be a woman, a non-binary person, a Native American, a person of color at Dartmouth, and how their time at the college led to the lives they're pursuing today. Our guest today is AlexAnna Salmon, Dartmouth class of 2008, a tireless advocate for the place where she grew up, the village of Igiugig in the Bristol Bay region of southwestern Alaska. She graduated with a dual degree in Native American Studies and Anthropology, and just recently completed a master's in rural development at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. AlexAnna also serves on the advisory board for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Immediately after Dartmouth, she returned home to Igiugig, where she assumed the role of Tribal Council president, which she still holds today. AlexAnna, welcome.
AlexAnna Salmon: Happy to be here.
Jennifer Avellino: Great to have you and thanks for making time in your busy schedule to join us on your cell phone today. Tell me about your community of Igiugig, where you grew up. How many people live there, what would you like us to know about the history of your village and its people?
AlexAnna Salmon: Igiugig is Igyaraq in the Yup'ik language and it's a primarily Yup'ik Eskimo and Athabascan community, but the name of it means where Lake Iliamna is being swallowed by the Kvichak River in southwestern Alaska. When I was little, there were 25, 30 people. I was the only student in my own grade my whole school career in Igiugig, but today, we're a community of 70 people and many, many children, but I didn't realize it until this COVID pandemic that our population never recovered from being initially decimated and having three survivors from the pandemic of a 100 years ago. So our population is just a reality of that.
Jennifer Avellino: What was that like being the only student in your grade, growing up in such a small community?
AlexAnna Salmon: You were very, very cherished. Before I could even enter school, I was babysat by all the elders every single day. I would just go and visit each house until the other kids got out of school. So my first teachers were all of the elders of our community and I have a close bond with all of them and unfortunately they've been passing away, but we have two left. I would just go right down the street and visit each elder and be taken care of for the whole entire day, and then when I started school, I ended up taking classes of the people ahead of me. So my sister was three years older than me, and just by virtue of that, I was always taking classes at a higher level than what I should have been in.
Jennifer Avellino: So it sounds like it actually provided a lot of opportunity for you in many ways. How did Dartmouth come into the picture for you? Did you initially think that would be possible for you?
AlexAnna Salmon: So, first of all, I grew up in very rural Alaska. There was one TV channel. We didn't watch TV. There was very, very slow internet connection. We barely did anything on the computer. So I lived pretty isolated. I didn't actually understand "Ivy League." I didn't know what that meant and what universities were part of that. So I was just operating in my own little world and I was all about getting scholarships. So if I went to an Alaskan university, for example, I would've had enough money to buy a car. So I was like, "I'm going to do the best financial situation for myself." Well, my father was from upstate New York and he knew what Ivy League meant. I was sent my entire life to visit my New York family. So I always traveled all the way East actually from seven years old for entire summers. My father let me go to school for my ninth grade in upstate New York. It was very evident that I was being pushed academically, but that I would probably study on the East Coast. I was looking at Cornell because it was nearest my grandmother. While they have something called a Native American fly-in program, which I couldn't believe, it's very, very expensive to fly out of my village. And these Native American programs would pay for your ticket to go and visit the campus if you were accepted. So I did all three. I did Cornell, Dartmouth, and Stanford. They had these fly-in programs and I was accepted to all three and I only made it to the two: Cornell and Dartmouth. Dartmouth, I had never heard of, had no interest in ever attending. So I get to Dartmouth and I stepped off the bus and onto the Green and I instantly felt at home. I have a deep, deep sense of home. So that was very, very striking for me.
Jennifer Avellino: And what was your first year like? What was your Dartmouth experience like? What did you get involved with on campus? How did you spend your time?
AlexAnna Salmon: So I did one of the Dartmouth Outing Club trips, first of all, the hiking trip, and bonded with all of my fellow hikers and it was so amazing. To this day, I still want to go back and do an outing club or be there. So the first friends I had, I made from that trip before classes even started, and they were the first community of friends that I hung out with and I'm still really good friends with quite a few of those fellow hikers. Anyway, after we got started, I was living in French, down by the Connecticut River, on the fourth floor, and I had to rent a dolly and go and take my things from the post office and move into my room, and it was sweltering heat. I remember walking up all four stairs and dragging my stuff from the post office this long distance, and there were all these families that were there moving in their students. So here I was moving in with nobody to help me and I was angry. I had a moment of like, "I can't believe I'm all the way here and having to live in these conditions." Anyway, by graduation, my mother did come to graduation and she just looked at me and she said, "AlexAnna, how did you ever find your way?" I said, "I don't know. It's a miracle." But anyway, I'm here moving in and then there was a senior who was sending out these flyers for a Native American gathering at the house and at the Native American house. Well, then I got invited to an event there and once I got involved in the Native American Council and their house and living, I ended up serving as their social chair for planning fun events and whatnot, and then eventually on campus, I got a job. I took a lot of four-course loads and then I took on these other extracurricular. I played intramural basketball and I just took advantage of every single time. There was somebody presenting on campus or a musical show happening or anything, I just attended as much as I could.
Jennifer Avellino: And you majored in Native American studies and anthropology. What was that like for you? AlexAnna Salmon: Because of graduating in a rural Alaskan school district where I had only language arts teacher my entire life, I knew that I couldn't do anything that was heavy in the math or sciences. I was very careful with the courses I selected so that I would be able to keep my grades up. I looked at the study abroad booklet and saw that anthropology and linguistics went to New Zealand and New Zealand was the only place that I wanted to travel at that time. I just started anthropology and I loved my Native American studies courses and did my travel abroad and everything has paid off tenfold in the past that I selected. But then I ended up using the anthropology department to write a senior thesis and they had a lot of funding to actually conduct all the research that I needed to do. In that research, I documented the social, political, economic reasons Igiugig settled where Igiugig is. I didn't know at the time that I was doing the first writing of our history, which had been oral and passed down for thousands of years. And that record that I created through the anthropology department at Dartmouth College would be the founding document for a lot of the work that we do today as a tribe, as an entire nation. So I feel like my education was shaped and pushed on by the ancestors for this to happen. I do a lot of my major every single day.
Jennifer Avellino: You mentioned earlier that you spent a great deal of time with the elders in your home community when you were a child. They provided the foundation for your senior thesis and your work. Could you have foreseen that?
AlexAnna Salmon: No, but to this very day, I love working with elders and the work that I do today is preserving all of their encyclopedic knowledge. They're so brilliant. I realized studying on the East Coast, how blessed I was to be in Alaska, never removed from my homeland and having the last generation of people who lived freely out on the land, who still spoke the language right at my fingertips. It really took studying so far away and seeing what happened with those colonizing forces all the way on the East Coast for me to embrace the opportunities I had right there. It was a rude awakening and once I had that awareness, I went full force in preserving as much as I can.
Jennifer Avellino: How was this connected to your work with the Smithsonian on the board of the Natural History Museum?
AlexAnna Salmon: Well, as I was doing this work, documenting our history, I went into the Native American Studies Library and I was passing time and they had a very, very small Alaska collection and there was a leather bound book called Alaska Magazine, and I just flipped it open while waiting. I was waiting on a friend and I looked at the page open to, and there was my great, great grandfather who I never had known was interviewed or anything and he was staring at me and I read his article. He lived to be over a 100 years old. He was such a legendary figure. I thought, "I need to be knowing and recording this information." So then I found any piece of any written thing on my village. There was one book from the first anthropologist for the Museum of Man for the United States and his name was Ales Hrdlicka and he had a diary. So this is another thing I loved at Dartmouth. You could request any book from special collections and they would deliver it. You could pick it up. I got this diary and I could see that this anthropologist had actually come to the Kvichak River. I didn't understand in 1931, that he had the capacity to dig up bodies. Well, he took hundreds from Vista Bay, but I didn't know it and it wasn't evident from this chapter that I read in this diary. I returned back home and the tribal president was an elder and she helped raise me, and the minute they elected me to the council board, she looked at me and she said, "With your education, you're going to be able to talk to people from the outside and I want you to be the president." I was so intimidated. I said, "I would never take your seat and only if you're not..." You don't say no to elders. When they ask you something, you do it. So the fact that she believed in me was overwhelming and then I had to chair the meeting after that. A lot happened in the blink of an eye. As I was serving as the president, the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust manager or director, his name is Tim Troll, he contacted me and said, "My brother has been working with the director of the Smithsonian, illustrating his books they're publishing on Alaska fossils." And he said, "The timing is really good to repatriate Kaskanak ancestors to back to Igiugig," and I said, "I can't believe there are people taken." It turned out we had 24 ancestors at the Smithsonian. So I appointed him, and then they used my thesis, which documented all of our old village sites to prove cultural affiliation with these ancestors, and then we executed a repatriation and the director, Kirk Johnson, of the Smithsonian. It was very powerful. The first anthropologist for the Museum of Man took my ancestors to the Smithsonian. They were trying to prove the Indian-Eskimo border and thought they could do it by looking at skulls. And then the sitting director, who's still the director today, he came out and he physically helped rebury these ancestors. Once they were reburied, it was the most powerful experience as a community we've ever had. You think ancestors and you live in a homeland where your people have lived for over 8,000 years, we call it time immemorial. I thought they were old, but after the reports came out, they were really only about 150 years old. So they could have very easily been my great grandmother. So just coming to grips with that and taking care of this, as well as addressing that we only had three survivors from our 1919 pandemic and that our people were still recovering. The reburial at our old village site that really died out was so, so powerful as a community and very spiritual. That site now sits on the National Register of Historic Places, and we're rewriting the entire archeological record of the Upper Kvichak and today, I'm also building a cultural center where we can celebrate our identity of who we are and also hope to bring these artifacts home where they belong. So that just started this whole journey, and I got to know the director very well and then they asked if I would sit on the advisory board. So there I am today and it's the favorite of all the boards that I sit on. It's just wonderful.
Jennifer Avellino: That is wonderful. So, AlexAnna, what language is spoken in your community? You're very interested in language preservation along with cultural revitalization for your community of course.
AlexAnna Salmon: Yes. So for many people, Yup'ik Eskimo is the first language. We also have a large amount of our people are also Dena'ina Athabascan. We have a program that we operate for the entire Lake Iliamna area in all the tribes and it's to preserve and revitalize both Lake Iliamna's dialects of Yup'ik and Dena'ina, totally unrelated language group. I've been doing this work with my classmate from Dartmouth who was a linguistic major and the greatest language revivalist, I would say in the United States. Her name is Renee Grounds. Her name at Dartmouth would've been Renee Grounds and she's gone back to Yuchi name, which is Halay, H-A-L-A-Y, and she married Jiles Pourier, who was also class of 2008 and they went back to their Native last name, which was Turning Heart. So her name today is Halay Turning Heart. So he's Lakota. She's Yuchi. I just brought her up to Alaska just last week, her and her father to be the keynote. Her father is Richard Grounds. He sits on Global Indigenous Languages Caucus and the two of them are brilliant. Her children, all three of them, their first language is Yuchi and that's the only language she speaks to her children in, and they're the first language speakers in over 100 years for the Yuchi people. It is the most powerful thing to ever watch and she's the most humble, quiet. You would never know that she is this force of nature, and she's probably the greatest gift Dartmouth has ever given me and everything you see outward facing of Igiugig being amazing, she's actually applied for and received all of the grant funding. She's a brilliant mind. We've been working together for at least eight years now, running all of these programs to do language preservation and maintenance and revitalization in different parts of Indian country.
Jennifer Avellino: So tell me more about your community and your role as Tribal Council president. You've been described as being at the forefront of the rural revolution in sustainable communities.
AlexAnna Salmon: So Igiugig is a very inclusive, welcoming community. We do long term visioning and then formalizing of that. So I'm definitely a product of that. It's like the strategic planning, where you want to be. We think hundreds of years ahead, but we formalize it for at least 20 years, like our work plan. I was part of that in high school. The leadership then said, "What does need to for it to be a community you want to return to?" In actively planning it, that's where the cultural center ranked top three; people wanted a cultural center. When I went off to college, I had a goal in mind and everything I did was to achieve that. For example, the architect who's designing the cultural center, I went to an archeological or, I mean, an architect presentation at Dartmouth, met him, and I said, "If we ever get to a cultural center, I want you designing it." Well, here we are 2022 and he's about to finish. He was an artist-in- residence at Dartmouth. The person I'm working with, like I mentioned, our grant administrator, our full-time grant administrator works from Oklahoma. She's a Yuchi-Indian and I met her at Dartmouth. So I took this network right home, and I still use it every day, but our community of only 70 people has a lot of children, and we interned them immediately when they're of hiring age. So everybody who turns 14, they come and work for the tribe. So I have worked for my tribe for over 20 years now in every single capacity, except for of course, maintenance or something that I absolutely cannot handle. So I've worked in all of the different departments, environmental... Igiugig Village Council is a federally recognized tribe, and we're the only form of government in our community. So we own and operate everything. The fuel, farm, water, and sewer and electrical, rental homes, every aspect of just regular governance, we run and operate, but then we have a for-profit arm. We own two for-profit companies. One of them is a civil construction company and one of them is an environmental remediation company. So I know a lot about contracting and construction and all of these things that Dartmouth could have never taught me, but I learned from just by way of being raised in this community and in this context. Today, we own a granite rip rap rock quarry on the coast, and then we own a lodge property over in another community. My passion today has been land reconsolidation. So I've been buying up native allotments and patching our land back together and Igiugig Village Council finally owns land because of some of these efforts, but it's really exciting. I wake up every single day and I can do something different and something new. And then I'm a halftime Yup'ik language project director. So I do a lot of language awareness and teaching on how to preserve language and those things.
Jennifer Avellino: Tell me more about some of your Dartmouth peers, who you mentioned earlier, who are leading the charge around the country in revitalizing native languages.
AlexAnna Salmon: It was very interesting while I was at Dartmouth college, they had this foreign language component that you absolutely had to master in order to graduate. I started studying Spanish and I realized how much time I was dedicating studying Spanish. And the Rassias method was very in your face and it's not conducive to how Native American culture or how you're taught in your community. So it was very harsh and I didn't want to be forced to learn a second language when I knew what dire circumstances our own native languages were in. So I ended up petitioning to the board at that time after taking Spanish for several semesters to just remove myself. So it was very interesting that most of my classmates, we didn't sit around the Native American house talking about what condition our languages were in. We sat around and complained together about how the Rassias method is not for us and how we're not happy with this foreign language component. But once all of our classmates graduated, they went home and the Iñupiaq became fluent in Iñupiaq. The Athabascan became fluent in his Koyukon Athabascan language, and he teaches immersion. The Lakota went home and she became fluent in her language and I turned on my TV one day in rural Alaska and saw her and heard her and I thought, "Oh my goodness, we all went home and realized nothing is more important than language at this time." So when Dartmouth asked for me to return for the 250th year of celebrating the college, I sat in a room with all different generations of alums, and they said, "What does the Native American Studies Program need to do or be for our next wave of students?" I said, "What I have seen from my classmates, the class of 2008, the class of 2009, and the language efforts happening, and the fact that 2022 to 2032 have been declared the international decade of indigenous languages, not only do we need to tell Dartmouth that foreign language component needs to just be a language component and allow... If it started as an Indian college and if it wants to be true to its mission, then it has to allow all of these Native students to do the work we need to do to save our indigenous languages because they come from all over." And that was my message and every single alum around the table was an agreement. I'm going to hold the Native American Studies Program accountable to that. And I need the institution itself to be a leader in the world on this charge. What an opportunity Dartmouth has to be the leader.
Jennifer Avellino: Well, that's a fascinating description of how your peers found something very challenging and perhaps culturally very difficult for them, the Rassias method of language instruction, and turned around and took the charge to do something down the road for their own communities. So AlexAnna, as we close our conversation and you've touched on this already, but how should the college continue to honor Native people, students and others in the Dartmouth community, 50 years after Dartmouth rededicated itself to educating Native students and founded a Native American Studies Program? What else needs to be done?
AlexAnna Salmon: So the Native American community is why I was able to survive my four years at Dartmouth and honestly, they were the greatest four years of my life. I loved it. I attended my first powwow at Dartmouth College and to this day, I love powwow, I love drumming, everything. So I'm very thankful for that. The language component is what is missing completely. The more work that I do with all age groups in the language reclamation work, it's a healing journey. It is so healing for everything we have been through. I believe that it's like it brings a holistic level. If we can just get Dartmouth College to embrace that, if Dartmouth could look back at what they invested in me in the four years, set me up for a lifetime to serve as president of an entire nation, which is the smallest probably in the world, but at least it can serve as a model for the possibilities. What I experienced at Dartmouth, you learn theoretically, Native American Studies, these ideas. In Alaska, those are still possible to implement. So we're breaking the mold in every direction as a tribe in what we're doing and it's so fascinating. So now, I have actually partnered with Harvard and we have a live nationhood building lab, a living lab. So whatever issues the tribe has that we don't have the capacity to tackle, I get the brightest minds in the country that are taking these courses at Harvard. I have a standing shopping list and I get partnered with students every semester, whatever they select, and they help do the research for a lot of the presentations I give on sustainability and systems change and all of these big topics, but we've been under a microscope in hope that our way of living and being in our values, they are universal. If the world would just heed some of this by example, we can potentially sustain our planet and it's our job to elevate it to all these different levels and I think that my Dartmouth education has really provided the network for me to reach out on all of these big topics.
Jennifer Avellino: Well, AlexAnna Salmon, Dartmouth class of 2008, thank you for sharing your remarkable work with us today.
AlexAnna Salmon: Thank you. I hope that some of these topics like the language work at Dartmouth do get elevated and implemented for the sake of what's happening around the globe.
Jennifer Avellino: This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for joining us and thanks to all of you for listening to our 50 for 50 Podcast series, supported by our Office of Alumni Relations. I'm Jennifer Avellino. My thanks to our co-producers, Catherine Darragh and Charlotte Albright, and to Dartmouth's Media Production Group for technical assistance. We hope you'll tune in for more episodes marking these three milestone anniversaries. You can find out more about our 50 for 50 Storytelling Project at Alumni.dartmouth.edu.