Cultural Crossroads: Meghan Siġvanna Topkok is unearthing her roots
Meghan Siġvanna Topkok grew up with half an identity.
On her mother’s side, Meghan is a white Oregonian. But on her father’s side, Meghan is Native Alaskan. Although John Topkok spent some of his youth in Ambler, Alaska, and his mother was Iñupiat (ee-NYOOP-ee-at), he was raised at a time when Native Americans were treated like second-class citizens.
“He always considered himself to be white on the inside, and brown on the outside,” Meghan’s mother, Lisa Holub, said. “He definitely didn’t want to be identified with Native culture.”
Meghan grew up in Oregon and Alaska under her father’s cultural detachment. A University of Oregon environmental law student, Meghan plans on returning to Alaska with an education that will allow her to advocate for Native American causes.
Meghan, 25, is part of a generation of Native Americans who feel more pride in their heritage. Over hundreds of years, Native Americans have struggled to adapt to an oppressive foreign culture. Meghan seeks to break that cycle.
And Alaska Natives need legal leadership, particularly from their own people. With a huge Native population — more than 14 percent, according to the 2013 Census — the state’s villages are in dire need of outspoken leaders.
Beyond that, Alaskan Native culture is unique in its structure. Due to the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, many of the reservations transformed into corporations. While perhaps well-intentioned, the change put Native Alaskans in a more precarious legal and economic position than many other places. But Meghan sees this as an opportunity.
“It’s difficult because we live in a very different world than our ancestors. I think the beauty of our culture is that we learn to adapt to our needs within the community,” Meghan said.
Meghan saw the strength of this community through the summers she spent in Alaska.
“I miss having that connection. Especially if I ever have kids myself, I want them to grow up knowing our land and our traditions and our language,” Meghan said.
But because of her father’s aversion to his history, Meghan had a difficult time placing who she really was.
This sense of identity loss is common among Native Americans, particularly in a situation like Meghan’s. Without a role model, she was left to wonder if her Native identity had any relevance in the world.
“When that identity is attacked or devalued,” Meghan said, “[It] severely impacts how a person sees themselves and how they relate to the rest of the world. There’s a lot lost.”
Meghan attributes part of this loss to the way western society has tried to shoehorn Native culture into its own concepts of normality.
“I think dealing with that trauma around identity led to things like substance abuse in our communities,” she said.
Native Americans are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes than whites, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. John Topkok was no exception. As he struggled to balance multiple jobs, he spent the little time he had at home drinking. Even at a young age, Meghan was critical of his behavior and how it affected the family. The two argued often.
Just before Thanksgiving in 2001, John was returning home in a small twin-engine plane from Reno, Nevada. He was caught in a powerful storm and was swept into a mountain. John, and four others, died instantly. Meghan was 11.
She vividly remembers her mother receiving the call.
“She picked up the phone and she just totally broke down,” Meghan said.
The tragedy left Holub to support Meghan and her brother. But it didn’t stop her from wanting a better future for her children.
“She ended up dropping out before she finished her degree, and I think that kind of motivated her to really instill in me the value of education,” Meghan said.
Meghan pushed through bullying and isolation in school, then took advantage of the Running Start program at Clark Community College in Vancouver, Washington, where she spent her last two years of high school obtaining college credits. Her sights were set high for the future. Meghan applied to Stanford, Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth.
Dartmouth turned out to be exactly the experience she needed to reconnect with her roots.
The school, founded in part “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land,” did little to live up to that reputation for 200 years — graduating only 19 Native American students in that time. However, since a renewed mission statement in 1970, over 700 Native American students have attended the school, more than at all the other Ivy League institutions combined.
Meghan majored in Native American Studies and minored in linguistics. Her dedication at Dartmouth earned her accolades and grants for research in Alaska.
“That was where, I think in a lot of ways, I became more empowered to appreciate and want to know more about my culture,” Meghan said.
Bruce Duthu, JD, a professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth and Meghan’s senior thesis supervisor, said that Meghan’s strongest trait is her ability to approach problems with humility — a quality that allows her to consider multiple perspectives.
“Her humility comes from a position of inquiry, interest and wanting to change things for the better,” Duthu said. “She’s in a position to be a very effective advocate.”
Meghan’s transition from immersion in Native American culture at Dartmouth to the UO law school wasn’t entirely smooth; her peers and professors often didn’t understand her perspective as a Native American. But she sees the education as a necessity.
“Unfortunately, in order to have our voices heard or have some legitimacy, we do have to have these western degrees, this knowledge, to be taken seriously,” Meghan said.
Fighting the system this way can be frustrating. But Meghan and others aren’t ready to give up.
“We’re not done. Not by a long shot,” Duthu said. “We still very much need talented, young, energetic people like Meghan who are fired up.”
After law school, Meghan aspires to work on the Alaska Supreme Court or in Washington D.C. with a federal agency to support change from afar. From this platform, she wants to act as a legal interpreter between two very different systems of tradition and culture — a role she has always played on a personal level.
“We always incorporated new technologies and adapted things from other cultures for our benefit,” Meghan said. “I don’t think it’s possible to go back to the way our ancestors lived — and nor should we. I think moving forward means adapting and learning and taking the best of both worlds and incorporating it into one.”
Do you appreciate independent student journalism? Emerald Media Group is a non-profit organization. Please consider a donation to support our mission.