This year’s Alaska Federation of Natives, Roger Lang Youth Leadership Awardee is none other than Bethel’s own Ben Nemqerralria Anderson-Agimuk. Anderson-Agimuk, a member of the Native Community of Chevak, is a legislative aide to District 38 Representative Tiffany Zulkosky (D).
Anderson-Agimuk, who grew up between Chevak, Tununak, Bethel, Anchorage, and Napakiak, accepted the award in Anchorage on Saturday, October 20. Anderson-Agimuk wants to make sure other Alaska Native youths pursuing leadership in politics have the same opportunities he’s had, knowing how much hard work it takes to get there.
“I knew adversity at an early age, and my family knew it too, but we stuck together as much as we could,” said Anderson-Agimuk while accepting his award at this year's AFN convention. “I know what poverty is. I know what hunger is. What addiction in the family is, but I also know what love is, and I know where my heart is.”
He sat down with KYUK in the studio last week, following AFN, to talk about what made him never give up.
KYUK: Who are your role models in life?
Anderson-Agimuk: When I think about certain people in particular, I think about people that have really provided emotional support, such as in college my Yup’ik professor, Dr. Walkie Charles. He reached out to me whenever I was having a hard time and was able to show me love instead of scorn, or that kind of stuff. And then there is people like Charlene Stern who was our – you know she’s a Gwich’in lady who is a professor of rural development at UAF, and she’s also the academic advisor for the Native Student Union. And there’s been other people that have shown their leadership that have provided themselves as role models and support, and I’ve seen them go off and do great things at the statewide level. Such as the tribal advisor to the governor, Barbara Blake. She was one of my advisors at UAF for our group that was to become the Native Student Union. As first it was called Natives For Positive Change, and she started that group.
KYUK: So, what drew you to politics?
Anderson-Agimuk: That one is kinda vague to me… I can’t really draw a line. I noticed that I started to develop within myself leadership skills in sports in high school. I would make sure that everybody got up on time to make sure they would get to school, and make sure the team was doing the right thing so that we would succeed. Make sure that they’re practicing hard enough and that they’re not picking on each other. And then when I starting joining student organizations I didn’t really step into the role right away. I eased into it. And after my first year of college I decided to change my major to political science with a minor in Alaska Native Studies. My focus in Alaska Native Studies was Alaska Native Laws, Politics, and Government. After a few years leading the Native Student Union, I decided to student senator. When I decided to be in the student senate, it was because there wasn’t any Native representation at that time. After a while I had encouraged other Native students to join the ASUAF Senate, and that increased the Native representation.
KYUK: Why is Native leadership important in politics?
Anderson-Agimuk: Native leadership is important because a Native leader has to be held accountable to culture and to the wellness of our people. Politics can blind people and make people forget where they came from, and it’s important to bring our Indigenous perspectives to the forefront because we have political narratives that bring about healing and decolonizing narratives, and these are less traditional in a western sense. And it’s important because we as Native peoples live a different lifestyle and have a set of values that can’t be forgotten. And once they’re forgotten I feel like a Native leader isn’t doing his or her job.
KYUK: What would you say the three top things are that you’d want to look at just right now?
Anderson-Agimuk: Well, you know, there is accountability is one thing. Make sure that our leaders are held accountable for the choices they make in life. Another is age. I want to see younger people getting involved and I want to see them taking over these roles that our community leaders have. I know when I go to the AVCP [Association of Village Council Presidents] convention it’s a lot of older people. I don’t really see a lot of cultivation among the youth. I think that starts at home. I think that starts by bringing young people to the tribal meetings and to different community functions and letting them know that, you know, ‘hey, you’re the future. You know, we’re not gonna be around and you need to start at an early age to help run this community.’ Another thing is just good Native representation in general everywhere. I want to see good, smart leaders with values in our city government and our tribal governments, and different boards and commissions at the regional statewide level, different community levels. And then, another thing is to see a little more cohesion in our patchwork of jurisdiction and legal areas that we have out here. It’s really hard to solve issues like, let’s say the alcohol issues when there really isn’t any blanket government that covers everything. So really we need agreements and different things like that, MOA’s, to make sure things get done. And we’ve seen that with things such as the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission, and I would just like to see that come to fruition in my lifetime.
KYUK: The Roger Lang Youth Leadership Award is typically awarded to young men. What are your thoughts about that?
Anderson-Agimuk: I thought that was interesting that it’s a political leadership award only available to young men and, you know, it’s a great award. And it’s great to honor our young people for stepping up into leadership positions. I just don’t like the fact that it’s only available to men, to young men, because I know plenty of young women who are stepping into the political arena who are doing great and amazing things and they’re not going to be recognized in the same way that I was recognized. There is the Fearless Leader Award, but that’s available to every age group and I just don’t think that it’s valuing our men and our women in the same way.
KYUK: Last question: what would your message be to youth in high school, throughout the Y-K Delta and throughout the state?
Anderson-Agimuk: I would say get involved and it could be in any way. You can start your own initiatives. You can start your own projects. You can ask your own questions. You can ask ‘hey, why is this happening in our community?’ It doesn’t matter how old you are, and people may not give you the credit and may discount your age, but you can empower yourself and you can say, ‘hey, we have an issue and I want to be a part of the solution,’ and that’s how we’re going to change things.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.