Green: Meghan Siġvanna Topkok reconnects with her roots through UO theater production
“Every time I go back to the village, I have to completely step out of being in a western culture and that mindset, because when you go back to the village, life is at a completely different pace.”
Meghan Siġvanna Topkok, 24, was born in McMinnville, Oregon.
Topkok’s heritage on her father’s side is of the Iñupiat– a subgroup of the Inuit people of Northern Alaska.
Topkok’s father was a pilot; he died in a plane crash when she was eleven.
“My dad and I had a really complicated relationship.” Topkok spoke of her father’s struggle with alcoholism. It was a burden that he didn’t project on to others, but one that affected the family regardless. “I think he always worked really hard to provide for his family…I loved him a lot, but it was frustrating.”
Her father never felt connected with their native heritage, a detachment instilled by his parents who had suffered discrimination for embracing the culture.
“I think alcoholism was his way of coping with that historical trauma,” Topkok said. “It wasn’t a good thing to be native…I think he wished he could just erase that whole part of himself.”
With an Oregon born mother and a father who was trying to move on from his origins, Topkok had little exposure to her roots.
“Growing up I always felt like something was missing.” She said.
Topkok sought the missing piece throughout the Northwest. She attended public schools across Oregon and Washington through high school, but she learned less about her culture as it is and more about the way it is seen in the eyes of history.
“As a kid, the most exposure we had to Native American culture was maybe one day in history class, five pages where it talked about the Plains Indians, tipis and bison.” Topkok said.
She was ready for change.
This came first in the form of acceptance to an Ivy League school. An opportunity her mother encouraged.
“She really pushed me to focus on my academics, she thought education was a way to overcome a lot of these issues and make a better life for myself.” Topkok said.
Topkok studied linguistics and Native American studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
She was funded by Dartmouth College to head to Nome, Alaska – a town with strong family ties for Topkok.
“I wanted to go back and kind of ground myself, kind of reconnect.” Topkok said.
In Nome, she worked at Kawerak, Inc – an organization that strives for better social conditions for Native Alaskans and sustain the culture and traditions that belong to them.
Topkok’s interest in law began at Dartmouth, but it developed further working in Kawerak’s legal department.
“I loved my job, waking up in the morning was the best thing.” Topkok said.
After working in Nome for a year, Topkok was inspired. She returned to the Northwest to study environmental law at the University of Oregon.
The transition wasn’t immediately smooth.
“It was just really hard adjusting to the mindset you’re expected to have in law school,” Topkok said. “It goes against a lot of the values I was brought up with…I felt like I was supposed to be very vocal and argue for the sake of arguing.”
But more than that, Topkok saw differences between herself and her peers in their reasons for studying law.
“(For many of them) it’s because of the good paying job. For me, it’s because I want to go back and help my tribe.” Topkok said. “I’m not doing any of this for me.”
Topkok spoke at length about her aspirations for change in Alaska on issues that rarely pass through the minds of those unfamiliar with the culture – tribal jurisdiction, environmental issues and the devaluation of native traditions, to name a few.
But until she can return north, Topkok is finding ways to connect with her people at the UO.
Topkok recently had a major role in the UO theater production of Sila, a play centered on environmental and cultural decline in Northern Canada featuring a number of native Inuit characters.
“There have been very few opportunities here for me to engage with my culture or grow my knowledge of our history and our traditions.” Topkok said. “I think this play has been one avenue where I can keep doing that and keep that up, because otherwise I’m just studying property law.”
The play has provided an opportunity for Topkok to reconnect with her geographically distant culture and reestablish her motivation. It’s been a reminder of what she is fighting for.
“The future – we can change that.” Topkok said. “We have control over ourselves.”
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