Descendant Spotlight: Piper Tolbert

Piper for president!

With a background in political science, a heart to help and a passion for activism, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that CIRI descendant Piper Tolbert (Athabascan) could one day hold the highest office in the land. For the moment, she is content to finish her senior year at Western Washington University and dedicate her time to causes she cares about.

Piper is connected to CIRI through her paternal grandmother, Bertha Thiele Tolbert, and her father, Reinhold Tolbert. Having grown up in Anchorage, “I wasn’t raised within Alaska Native culture,” she said. “I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with my grandmother, who lives in King Salmon (a village in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region), but I lived primarily with my mom, who’s white and whose family hails from Texas.”

Being selected as a 2019 CIRI summer intern “helped me feel much more connected to my Alaska Native heritage,” Piper said. “And with everything that was going on (with the state budget crisis) this summer, it presented some really cool opportunities to engage with Alaska Native groups that are doing amazing things in terms of advocacy and political activism.”

Through a CIRI-funded external placement, Piper spent her summer at Story Works, an Anchorage nonprofit that supports youth voices through storytelling and writing workshops. “It’s such a cool program and I love telling people about it!” she enthused. “I also volunteered with Story Works last summer, just two days a week while I was working. I would go in on my days off and do administrative work, and I even helped write some grants and plan the first back-to-school fundraiser. It’s a small organization; there’s only one full-time employee. When I was asked to come back and help out over the winter break, I applied to and received financial support through The CIRI Foundation. And then I was back this summer as part of CIRI’s summer internship program.”

Story Works’ story workshops bring volunteer story coaches into high-school language arts classrooms to encourage and support student storytellers. The organization also offers free, out-of-school support to students developing college admissions essays. Piper and several other Story Works volunteers helped out at this year’s CIRI C3 Experience—an overnight camp that aims to instill leadership and college prep skills in young shareholders and descendants—assisting campers with their own stories and essays.

“The opportunity for Alaska Native youth to share their stories is so important,” Piper said. “Sharing honest, first-person stories with one another builds connections and community, makes space for people’s experiences to be recognized and cherished, and grounds us within our culture.”

Piper just began her senior year of college, majoring in political science with a minor in law, diversity and justice. She has her eye on law school and would like to pursue a policy career. As far as going into politics, “I don’t know!” she laughed. “When people ask me that, my default answer is that I feel like I need more experience. But women often assume they need more experience whereas men are like, ‘Yeah, I’d be great at it!’

“I don’t have a clear vision of myself getting into it (politics) currently, but I won’t say I’d never consider it,” Piper continued. “When I see people like (U.S. Representative) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it’s so inspiring. She started out as a bartender, and as someone who’s worked in food service for a long time, I can say that I’ve never met people who are more qualified. When you work in the service industry, you deal with everyone and every type of situation.”

In her free time, Piper spends her time baking, engaging in outdoor activities and volunteering for causes like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. Inspired by her 95-year-old grandmother, she’s also learning how to knit and crochet “so that when I go to King Salmon it’s something we can do together.”

Piper for president. You read it here first.