Alaska Native youth practice traditional dance in the Alaska Native Heritage event space.

Reflections On A Vista Year

Just over a year ago, I moved 4,072 miles from East Tennessee to Anchorage, Alaska to begin a year of service at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Looking back, I’m not sure how I convinced TEAM ANHC to bring me on board; I had no ties to Alaska, and I didn’t even own a winter coat. Still, the incredible staff at the Heritage Center took a chance on me—and I’m so thankful that they did. 

Within my first few weeks of service, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to the village of Eagle, Alaska, the traditional homelands of the Hän people on the south bank of the Yukon River near CanadaI spent time at Moose Camp subsistence hunting and fishing, met with Elders who graciously shared wisdom (and tea) with me in their own homes, and even had the chance to attend a Tribal Council Meeting and interview Karma Ulvi, the Chief of Eagle and the community’s sole health aide. 

I returned to Anchorage honored and thankful for the weeks I spent in Eagle, sure that I had experienced the highlight of my VISTA year early on in my year of service. However, I soon realized that my time in Eagle was just the first of many once-in-a-lifetime moments that I would experience at the Heritage Center. (There are truly too many to count, but hosting Good Morning America and working with Culture Bearer & Elder Marge Nakak to write a children’s book are certainly on the list!) 

For the last 365 days, I have sat in on meetings with State officials, developed social media campaigns, drafted stories, written speeches, prepared grant applications, and so much more. Best of all, I had the privilege of learning and living the 10 Universal Alaska Native Values in my work and daily life. One of those values is Share What You Have, Giving Makes You Richer. 

To the Heritage Center staff: 

Quyana for sharing your home and place of healing with me. 

Haw’aa for sharing your grace and trust through both troubles and triumphs. 

Chin’an for sharing that poverty, the social issue that AmeriCorps VISTA was created to eradicate, cannot be measured by those who do not understand the value of connection to one’s culture and self. 

Quyanaqpak for sharing your time, stories, friendship, earrings, recipes, and berry-picking spots. 

Thank you for taking a chance on a recent college grad from Tennessee and welcoming me to your home. Of everything I’m thankful for this past year, I am most thankful that I was able to join you on this journey. Qagaasakun for all you have shared with me—I am the one who is richer for it. 

Presley West served as an AmeriCorps VISTA from August 2020-2021 and is staying on at the Alaska Native Heritage Center as the Project & Communications Manager.