A life dedicated to cultural heritage

FAIRBANKS — Sean Topkok is of mixed race and grew up in a state of “cultural confusion.”

“I was bullied by my classmates for being native,” he said. “I was shunned by my relatives for being white. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.”

At a cultural camp as a young man, he had a kind of awakening. Some encouraging Yup’ik elders made him feel like it was OK to be proud of his background.

“I felt like it was a gift because of how they nurtured me,” he said. “I became really thirsty about learning more about all of my cultural heritages.”

Topkok is Irish, Norwegian and Inupiaq. Later, when he was in graduate school, an uncle told him that he is also part Sami, a reindeer-herding tribe of Northern Europe.

Topkok has dedicated his life to embracing his indigenous background and preserving the knowledge that has been passed down for 8,000 years by his Inupiaq ancestors and by other indigenous tribes.

He worked for the Alaska Native Knowledge Network for 17 years. Now he teaches Alaska Native Education — a requirement for a bachelor’s degree in education — and Rethinking Multicultural Education, among other classes, as an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Education.

Topkok is one of fewer than 100 Alaska Native people to hold a doctorate degree, he said. He founded the Pavva Inupiaq Dancers of Fairbanks in 1999, and he is a past Alaska delegate to the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education.

On Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday, Topkok, whose Ph.D. is in indigenous studies, moderated a faculty and staff panel discussion: “What does Indigenous Peoples Day mean?”

This was the first year it’s an official state holiday under Alaska statute.

Gov. Bill Walker signed a bill in June declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day. Previously, it was a temporary holiday by proclamation. It falls on the same day as the federal holiday Columbus Day.

Topkok said he sees Indigenous Peoples Day as a way to acknowledge history, heal and move forward.

“Culturally, we were raped,” he said. “That’s a trauma that we need to recognize it happened to us. We need to heal from that.”

Topkok’s office is tucked away on the seventh floor of the Gruening Building. Posters outlining the values and beliefs of multiple Alaska Native tribes hang on his walls.

The professor talks in a calm, deliberate manner, letting his eyes do the work of changing expression and conveying emotion. Two white studs dangle from just below his bottom lip.

“I have that title, Dr. Topkok, but I prefer to be called by my Inupiaq name, Asiqluq. People can’t pronounce it so they call me Sean.”

The 51-year-old was born in Anchorage and grew up one of five boys. His family is from Teller, which is north of Nome.

Topkok went to college to become a music teacher but decided to step away from that pursuit out of fear that he would grow to dislike music.

He studied ancient Greek and Latin, earning a bachelor’s degree in humanities with a minor in foreign languages.

“Now I am a language enthusiast,” he said.

He speaks Norwegian at home. His Inupiaq wife, with whom he shares three sons and a grandson, learned it while studying abroad and taught him.

He also learned sign language after paying a hearing-impaired person to teach him.

When his middle son, who attends the University of Alaska Fairbanks, stopped by to visit at lunchtime, they spoke Inupiaq.

Topkok said that by learning languages, he can build relationships with different kinds of people.

“I just love learning about who people are and where they come from,” he said. “Everyone has such unique cultural differences.”

Asiqluq, Topkok’s Inupiaq name, means “bad boy.” Topkok shared the story of his naming at a TEDx event, a spinoff of TED Talks, in 2014.

“I wasn’t named because I was a bad boy,” he said. “I was named after one of my great uncles. My grandmother gave me the name. So if elders asked me my Inupiaq name, they would know my family tree just by that.”

Stories are an important part of indigenous knowledge systems, he said.

Topkok’s faith in older generations’ ways of doing things is born from experience, he explained during the TEDx event. A recording is available on YouTube.

Topkok used to suffer from frequent cluster migraines. When they grew unbearable, a doctor prescribed various pharmaceuticals. None of it worked. An elder suggested he try spruce tea. Topkok learned the proper way to make the tea and drank it for three days. The headaches subsided, he said.

Topkok hopes to leave a legacy of educators who pass on their knowledge of native ways of knowing to future generations.

“I want to help nurture the future teachers as my elders nurtured me to be who I am today,” he said.

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