Posts with Purpose: Choosing Substance Over Likes
Haliehana Stepetin’s PhD work focuses on the deeper cultural implications and meaning behind Alaska Native harvests.
What it means to be a social media influencer in Alaska—with its modest population of about 730,000 spread out over more than 663,000 square miles—is a bit different than the Lower 48. That’s even more the case when your target audience is Alaska Natives.
Many Alaska Native influencers use the social media platforms TikTok and Instagram for a variety of reasons, often mixing creative entrepreneurship with social justice and environmental causes important to them.
“The most important thing to me is that it connects younger Native women to themselves,” says Jacquii Lambert (@jacquiiwithacue).
Lambert, a proud Iñupiaq dancer and auntie from Kotzebue, is also an artist who has created a line of products focused on solidarity.
“These designs are meant to show that we are a community that transcends the borders of four colonial states (Russia, USA, Canada, Denmark),” she writes in a recent post on Instagram.
Embracing one’s cultural identity is a cornerstone of the conversations Lambert tries to generate through her social media posts, partially because of her own path to acceptance. As a child, Lambert says she was always sharing her culture with outsiders; she spent the summer performing at the local museum. Then, something changed.
“I went through a phase in my life where I didn’t want to be Native in any way, and all of that insecurity was projected out by bullying other Natives who are more ‘Native’ than I am,” Lambert says.
Jacquii Lambert, an artist, dancer, and auntie from Kotzebue.
Lambert has been actively working to reclaim her cultural identity since college, she says. In addition to sharing her culture with other young Alaska Natives, Lambert seeks to create dialogues about mental health.
“I like to have the conversation, and I mostly do that through my captions, my photos, my visuals, and my poetry that I share,” Lambert says, pointing out that in doing so she creates important conversations about generational trauma. “I will also talk about my awareness of my Native identity and how much that kind of connects back to my health.”
Alaska Native Identity
Grappling with identity and sharing one’s identity is a prominent theme among many Native social media influencers. Miss Alaska 2017 Alyssa Yáx Ádi Yádi London (@alyssaklondon) wrote a children’s book that “seeks to help children be proud of who they are and increase their confidence in their identity.”
The book, “Journey of a Freckled Indian,” follows the path of a young girl forced to walk in two worlds as she discovers how to be confident in her identity.
Though born and raised in Seattle, London now lives in Anchorage and was the first Tlingit Miss Alaska USA. She is the founder and CEO of Culture Story, a media and educational company focused on conversation about identity.
“I think identity as an Indigenous person is just difficult, particularly since a lot of us are mixed race,” says London. “I think because I own that part of who I am, people are attracted to that because it makes them feel validated in who they are.”
London explains that she is attempting to push back against the lack of representation of Alaska Natives in mainstream media and entertainment.
“I got a letter from a woman who approached me at the end of a Nalukataq festival and gave me a letter telling me how much it meant to her to see Alaska Native culture represented on stage and how that made her feel beautiful and feel seen.”
It’s important to show what it means to be Alaska Native today, London says.
“I just need it to be true to what I’m trying to communicate and not whether it’s a ton of engagement,” London says about her social media messaging.
“Alaska Native identity needs to be something that you claim based on your descendancy and your pride for the values that you uphold. And your commitment to certain tenants of the lifestyle that do involve nature and the land and descendants and reverence for community,” London says.
Jacquii Lambert emphasizes connecting younger Native women to themselves through her social media influence.
Unlike London’s Instagram page, which is a mix of images that are “classic” Alaska and modern glamour, Marina Anderson’s page (@marina_alaska) is much more focused on her customary and traditional harvesting lifestyle in Port St. Nicholas Bay on Prince of Wales Island.
“My dad died seven years ago, and my siblings and I still harvest for everybody,” Anderson says, noting that her and Heather Douville’s family (@akmoosie) feed the majority of several communities on the island.
“We put up freezers full of food and try to share that knowledge with the next generations so that anybody who is missing a step or a piece of the puzzle can hopefully go grab that from us.”
Anderson explains that when she first got on Instagram, she didn’t realize its potential for educating people beyond sharing images of her favorite food and various edits of the same selfie. But when she did, she seized the opportunity.
“I started posting things more intentionally. And part of that is like: What do I want the next generation to see? You know—lead by example. What do I want to model as something that is cool?” Anderson says.
Marina Anderson focuses on sharing information about traditional harvesting on her Instagram page.
“I didn’t have those role models when I was in school because it was a predominantly non-Native school. And all the Native kids would just act like they weren’t Native. And most of them would make fun of Native people as well.”
For a long time, this meant Anderson focused on sharing images of her harvests, as well as traditional recipes. However, she started to scale that back—posting things out of season—because she was afraid that the knowledge could be abused if it wasn’t paired with an understanding of how to prepare oneself to take part in a harvest and how to properly share the harvest.
Anderson also uses her platform on Instagram for environmental advocacy on issues that directly affect her and other Haida and Tlingit people, such as trans-boundary mining rivers. Recently Anderson went offline both to make a statement about the Tongass Forest Roadless Rule and to take a personal breather from maintaining her account.
“I think identity as an Indigenous person is just difficult, particularly since a lot of us are mixed race. I think because I own that part of who I am, people are attracted to that because it makes them feel validated in who they are.”
As soon as the Biden Administration made the announcement that it was overturning former President Donald Trump’s policy on the issue and reinstating the Tongass Forest Roadless Rule, Anderson fired up Instagram and posted about it.
Prior to her months-long break on the social media platform, Anderson was a vocal advocate for educating people about the roadless rule.
“I got really active trying to just slowly teach people about roadless, teach people about who we are as a people and understand why it’s not the trees that matter—it’s everything being intact that matters for us,” Anderson says.
Anderson says that by tagging other advocates on Instagram she was able to help amplify their voices on the issue, as well.
Posting for Purpose
The deeper cultural implications and meaning behind Native harvests that Anderson embodies in her life is the focus of the PhD work by Haliehana Alaĝum Ayagaa Stepetin (@indigenous_agent), who is Unangax born and raised on Akutan.
“I’m extending subsistence as not just an event that happens at harvest, but it’s also the stories that we tell throughout winter months and the stories that we dance,” Stepetin explains. “Within those holds information for climate justice and environmental justice.”
Stepetin says that Instagram has been a generative space for her to share her grad school work, especially when it comes to dismantling academic gatekeeping and recognizing the knowledge production that happens within Native communities.
“I felt like it was a really accessible way for me to share about these things that I was writing,” Stepetin says. “It made me feel like I wasn’t doing or creating or producing knowledge in a vacuum.”
Stepetin says she’s not worried about gaining more followers or if a post loses her any followers because she wants to engage with a very specific audience on her platform.
“I want to speak to just Alaska Native communities and Indigenous communities, and speak to the youth,” Stepetin says. “When I was a young Alaska Native kid in my village, I didn’t think these things that I’m doing were possible. I didn’t think it was possible to, you know, leave and to still remain connected when you leave.”
Amanda Mitchell in a traditional ribbon dress that she made.
Amanda Mitchell (@athabascan.adventures), an Alaska Native photographer and formerly an ambassador for Native Women’s Wilderness, says that the opportunities created through being on Instagram allowed her to better understand the lands she hiked and explored.
As an outdoor enthusiast and Athabascan, Mitchell had been regularly posting images of herself out in the wilderness hiking and fishing. When Native Women’s Wilderness contacted her about sharing one of her posts on their account, they had a string of questions: What was the history of the land? Who were the Natives that had a history of using the river?
Mitchell says she didn’t know at the time, but she suddenly wanted to. The results were a surprise.
“It turns out that the river was fished by my ancestors, my tribe, my people thousands of years ago,” Mitchell says. “And I had no idea, and I was totally blown away.”
As Mitchell’s platform gained momentum, she turned the conversation toward engaging followers on seeking justice for missing and murdered indigenous women (#MMIW). The movement is raising awareness and combating the extraordinarily high rates at which Indigenous women experience violence, go missing, and are murdered.
While most Alaska Native influencers’ follower numbers are in the thousands rather than millions, their focus is on reaching the right audience content that has substance and meaning.
“I know I have a lot of outsiders paying attention to me because consuming Native information, I think, is a very exciting and exotic thing for them to do, but I’m not here to educate them,” Lambert says. “I’m not here to share with them. I’m not here to perform for them. I’m here for these younger Native women who are watching me and learning that they can become like me.”
“I’m extending subsistence as not just an event that happens at harvest, but it’s also the stories that we tell throughout winter months and the stories that we dance. Within those holds information for climate justice and environmental justice.”