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Gathered Around a ‘Woodstove,’ Young Nomeites Share Their Stories Publicly

The crowd listens to a tale from storyteller Robert Hattle. (Photo: Maddie Winchester, KNOM)

Six young storytellers recounted times in their lives in which they grew from adversity and took chances in the face of uncertainty. The 2020 Tales from Around the Woodstove was held earlier this year, the first collaboration between the Nome Arts Council and the Nome Youth Coalition.

KNOM’s Joe Coleman reports:

On a snowy Saturday in January at the Nome Elementary School, young community members seized an opportunity to publicly stand in front of their family and friends to talk about a defining moment from their lives in Western Alaska. Some stories were humorous, others poignant and serious. The theme was “This is Me: Stories from Rural Alaska.” The night was started by local artist Arlo Hannigan.

The event began under the name ‘Arctic Entries’. Carol Gales, President of the Nome Arts Council, explains how it has grown locally into ‘Tales from Around the Woodstove’.

“In April 2015 we had our first event and we called it ‘Arctic Entries’. We actually had some people from the Anchorage organization come to Nome and coach the storytellers and organize the event. We called it ‘Arctic Entries’ the first couple of years and then we called it ‘Tales from Around the Woodstove.’”

– Carol Gales

Gales explains that the idea lies in the fact that Western Alaskans take off their shoes and coats in an arctic entryway, which symbolizes the vulnerability of the storytellers unpacking their life’s defining moments on stage.

Mike Hoyt, local emcee and school teacher at Nome-Beltz, shared one of his family’s stories during the 2020 Tales from Around the Woodstove event. Photo from James Mason, used with permission.

The first speaker of the evening was actually the emcee, Mike Hoyt.

“In fact, I’ll be telling a story as we go, just in little bits and pieces as a way to introduce our storytellers tonight. And the story that I’m telling is one of my personal favorite stories, not just in terms of being able to tell it, but a story that is very close to my heart; a story that I heard from my great-great-grandfather. It’s a story of Kaaxaachgook, a Tlingit man from Sitka.”

– Mike Hoyt

Hoyt’s story talks about a leap of faith; a theme a majority of the storytellers alluded to in one way or another. One such story was from Jahira Hawkins-Dempsey, who talked about her move to Alaska from North Carolina.

“The topic is ‘This is Me,’ so I was like ‘this is part of me.’ It’s me for the first time moving up to Alaska, and that weird decision of having to come up to Alaska and having to put my entire life in bags, and having to come up here on a plane, and it was my first time on a plane.”

– Jahira Hawkins-Dempsey

She wasn’t the only storyteller who took a leap. Gigi Durden took more than just one.

“I grew up in a really tiny town in Northern New Mexico and then I found myself in Nome, Alaska of all places.”

– Gigi Durden

With the new involvement of the Nome Youth Coalition, there was an addition to the event this year.

Interpretation & Education Program Manager at Bering Land Bridge National Preserve Katie Cullen explains which organizations make up the Coalition.

“The Nome Youth Coalition is a group of organizations here in Nome including The National Park Service, Kawerak, Norton Sound Health Corporation Behavioral Health Services, Boys and Girls Club, Nome Eskimo Community, and Nome Public Schools.”

– Katie Cullen

Beyond that, the Coalition has a very specific mission.

“The idea of the coalition is a great collaboration – and it’s a really neat collaboration opportunity – and that the ideas, activities, and collaborations be youth-driven.”

– Katie Cullen

By the end of the night Hoyt saw some of his students get up on stage. He says he witnessed a transformation in some of the speakers.

“I’m just really impressed where some of these students are rather quiet in a classroom and a little shyer, and then you see them get up and tell their story and you just see a different side of them. There’s a confidence and a charisma to their storytelling that you don’t always see when they’re in a classroom.”

– Mike Hoyt
Carol Gales presents an award to Nome youth Eva Earthman during the 2020 Tales from Around the Woodstove event. Photo from James Mason, used with permission.

With this year’s event finished, Carol Gales of the Nome Arts Council has a final message for those interested in sharing their stories on stage in the future.

If you’ve ever thought about telling a story and you’re listening to this right now, think about it and next year when we’re calling storytellers, please volunteer yourself and share your story. I know people have to have just amazing stories. It would be great to get those shared. I wanna hear them.

– Carol Gales

As evidenced by the first time storytellers from the Nome Youth Coalition, there’s always an opportunity to try something new.

Image at top: The crowd listens to a tale from storyteller Robert Hattle during a previous year’s event at the Nome Elementary School. Photo from Maddie Winchester, KNOM.

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