Words have power to drive change

May we live our lives so that Our Words Have Power.

Good Evening elders, youth, delegates and guests. My name is Ethan Schutt. I am the grandson of Josephine and the late Lawrence Roberts of Tanana. I was born to Jeanette Roberts/Scannell and am the son of David and the late Joyce Schutt. Many of you may know my twin brother, Aaron, who is now the President and CEO of Doyon, Limited, the regional corporation for our Interior River villages. I am also joined here tonight by my wife Kristina and our children. I am honored to speak to you as we close our 2011 AFN Convention.

Our theme this week has been “Strength In Unity”. It is a message with strong meaning and resonance for us as we attempt to navigate the challenges of our modern world. We are diverse in culture, geography and background. We represent tribes, villages and Alaska Native Corporations. We represent ourselves, our villages, our grandparents and our grandchildren.

Because we share common challenges, we require a unified and concerted effort to overcome them. To meet these challenges, to become united so that we are strong, I believe we must relearn how to live our lives so that our words have power.

Neal Charlie message
Last summer I was blessed with an important lesson. I was at home in my wife’s village of Minto as we were preparing for a funeral and potlatch. In the Interior Rivers ways, we were at the family home for tea. Grandpa Neal Charlie began to speak, sometimes in English, sometimes in his Native language. I listened. And although there were others there with us, it felt for all the world like we were alone, he the master teaching me the student. I can still feel the Power of his words, the force and truth of his conviction.

He spoke about the Old Ways and about change. And he used one of his Native words as a theme. He talked about this word that was used to describe the situation of when you get too far to one side of a river and it makes it difficult to get back to the other side. He used this word and its meaning as a metaphor for where his Native people are today.

His message was clear: we have gotten too far to one side of the River. In many ways we have become too westernized at the expense of our Native ways. And now it is very difficult to get back.

I’m afraid Grandpa Neal was right. We are too far on one side of the River.

The Challenge
Because of the lessons in Grandpa Neal’s words, I am here to challenge you tonight, especially those of my generation and those who are younger. We have real work to do and we must come together to get this work done.

Our grandparents have done enough for us. They have done the difficult work of navigating our People across the River. Our grandparents, many who were born in tents, have brought us into a world of opportunity, of cross-cultural competence and of education. Some of them literally took beatings in their youth, beatings that were required to get us to this place and time of opportunity. Many of them taught themselves English from a Bible or a dictionary so that they could advocate on behalf of their communities and stand up for their values in the broader society that came at them so fast.

They protected our ancestral lands and established our Native institutions. They fought for an educational system that would serve us. They fought discrimination and prejudice to assure that we would have opportunity. And their efforts, their sacrifice, their wisdom has brought us to where we are today: the masters of our Place, opportunity all around.

And so I challenge you tonight to honor our grandparents’ collective sacrifice by taking full advantage of the opportunities they have provided and by ensuring that the Native ways they hold so dear remain vibrant and alive.

We, the men and women of my generation, and those younger, we must step up to the challenges of today. We must not rely on our Elders to take care of us. We are not children and so we must not act like children. Instead we must do the hard work of meeting the challenges of our communities, of realizing the opportunities created from so much hard work and sacrifice.

Words Have Power
One way we can begin this journey is by realizing that our Words have Power. Speech is the communion of the physical and the spiritual. Words, and the act of physically speaking, connect us with a powerful spiritual world.

‘I have a Dream!’ how many of us know those words? . . . We all know these words, but how many people in this room heard them directly when they were spoken? And how many knew the man who spoke them? Maybe no one in this room. But we all know the words, we all know their meaning, and we all know their context and hear the echo of their speaking in our heads. The simple act of repeating those words still invokes their power and the force of their truth. Those four words embodied a movement that corrected and superseded one of our country’s greatest evils. Words do have power. And our words have power.

Our Native languages are particularly strong in this way. The words of our Native languages have deep and subtle meanings about place and season. They are loaded with the how and the why in addition to simple meanings about what and where.

Our ancestors tended to use their words carefully, saving powerful speech for powerful occasions. They spoke about certain subjects and used certain words only at specific events and in a specific context. They did not confuse simply speaking in an unthoughtful and casual way for speaking careful, thoughtful speech when it was required. We must relearn this way. We must relearn this ancient knowledge about how to Make Speech rather than simply speaking.

We must take care that our words educate, guide and inspire, and, when necessary correct and even judge. We must take care that our words are words of wisdom, of encouragement, of truth. We must be careful about how we talk about ourselves and our communities. Just as words have an infinite power to build up, so too do they have a terrible and lasting power to tear down. We must respect this dual nature of our words and use them accordingly.

We are not poor. We are the wealthiest people on Earth. We are the heirs to our ancestral lands, to our rich and ancient cultures.

We are not pitiful. We are capable, adaptable and wise. We do not require any government to treat us as children, as wards. No, we are responsible for our own destinies.

We are not drunks. We are not abusers. And we are not criminals.

Accordingly, we must be vigilant not to talk about ourselves and our communities in these terms. Your words are real. God gave you the power to speak a binding truth on yourself, on your community, and on your Place. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. spoke freedom and racial justice into being, so too do we define our future with our words. No federal grant is worth calling your village poor and making it so. No state program justifies characterizing your community as lawless, ensuring that it is.

And so we must relearn our thought and our speech. Powerful speech requires careful observation-sometimes for years-listening and learning. It requires us to know the essence of our Place. Only then will the River speak to us. Only then will we know the wisdom of our ancestors. Only then will we understand the needs of our Place and of our people and how to speak to them and for them.

Finally, we must do the hard work of preparation. We must be the hands and feet of an army of doers to get things done for Native Alaska and in our rural villages. And we must be courageous.

Grandpa Neal’s brother Cerosky Charlie, my wife’s grandpa, once called me over during a potlatch. He said, “you need to make speech.” But I was afraid and I did not speak that night. It was some time before I spoke at a potlatch. I wasn’t sure what I would say. So I prepared. I took a long time to make a speech. I have spoken, and now I speak to you tonight as my grandfathers once spoke at potlatch, as Grandpa C challenged me to do.

Let me be clear, I do not speak so that your life will be easy or your challenges trivial. I speak so that your life will be good, respectful of your grandparents and responsible to your grandchildren.

Accordingly I speak strength and power to you. I speak knowledge and wisdom to you. I speak courage and perseverance over you. And lastly, I speak to you with deep love and respect.

Our Words Have Power.

God Bless you Native Alaska, especially those watching in the villages. And may God Bless you as you travel home safely. Together we will live our lives so that our words have power. Together we will do the hard work to make sure we are successful on both sides of the River.

Good Night.