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Focus on women as key to future for Alaska Natives

Tommy WellsThe Arctic Sounder

While completing a Semester At Sea program through the University of Virginia that sent her to five different countries in South and Central America, Jacqui Lambert was assigned to create a project using the eight Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations focus on global human development.

Her chore, along with several other students, was to come up with a creative way to help empower women in Uganda.

It was there the University of Idaho student found herself wondering why the same thing couldn't be done for women at home. Home for Lambert is the northern part of Alaska.

"I stopped to ask myself, 'Why am I helping these women halfway across the world when I can be focusing on the people I look up to most right at home?'" said Lambert, the daughter of Harold and Jaime Lambert and Paulette Schuerch.

With a call to her friend, and fellow Kotzebue High School graduate, Hannah Atkinson, the MISS organization was born with the goal of empowering women through culture and identity while combating domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape.

"There are so many women out there who have been scarred for life through these acts of violence and if this generation doesn't speak about it now, the next generation will go through the same horrifying experiences," said Lambert.

Gratitude mukluks

As part of its mission, the MISS organization also wants to celebrate women's successes in an effort to inspire the future generations.

"When I think of brave, strong, and influential women, I think of the women of the NANA region," said Lambert. "They are at the top of the list above any other woman I have met in the past 20 years and they will continue to be up there. In celebration of these women through the MISS organization, we hope to inspire girls of all ages."

Lambert and Atkinson brought their message home recently. During their summer break from college, both returned to Kotzebue, aiming to establish the movement there.

One of their ways of spreading the MISS goal is through the creation of a "gratitude mukluk" key chain women can carry with them at all times. The key chain, according to Lambert and Atkinson, is a reminder to think of something the women are grateful for when they feel frustrated, sad or insecure.

"You have to name something that you are grateful for," Lambert said. "Going through the process of shifting your mind to things you are grateful for should ultimately change your thoughts from a negative point of view to a positive one."

Lambert said she used her gratitude mukluk a lot while attending college.

"Whether it was while in a hurry to get to my car, storming into my apartment after a bad day, or even checking the mail afraid of more bills," she wrote in her online blog. "I made myself think of things that made me happy so I wouldn't think too hard about what was stressing me."

Lambert and Atkinson took the movement public earlier this month when they began distributing gratitude mukluks at the Fourth of July Fair in Kotzebue.

Strong support followed. Even former state Rep. Reggie Joule offered his support, reminding the two that a mukluk was a symbol of movement. "They have been somewhere and are still on the journey of going somewhere," Joule said.

Atkinson said she was recently asked to serve on a committee in Juneau to discuss social ills, including domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape culture in the communities. "At the root of this problem is disconnect between individual and culture, creating a loss of identity," said Atkinson, who has lived in Kotzebue since 2005 and served on the same cheerleading squad as Lambert while in high school. "What we came away with is that while our communities are suffering from domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape culture, what we need to focus on is our identity and culture in order to overcome." 

Atkinson and Lambert said they both would like their movement to lead to one thing — more open talk. "Every time we come home we enjoy discussing the ways in which our community had changed, stayed the same, and the ways in which we have changed and see it differently," Atkinson wrote. "This time we delved into womanhood, discussing how being a women growing up in Kotzebue, and our cultures had played into the formation of our identity. We thought, 'What if we could get the rest of Kotzebue talking about what it means to be a woman. A young woman, an old woman, an Inupiaq woman, a woman on Alaska?'"

The two have said they plan to continue their efforts, taking them even farther in an effort to address issues in rural Alaska. They are currently working on a video that highlights the struggles and triumphs of being a woman in the NANA region.

"We want to recognize as many inspirational and strong women of all ages in our region," Lambert said. "Women for girls from elementary through college and even motherhood to look up to."

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This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.