Growing up, CIRI Shareholder Tayler Tanginiq Higgins (Yup’ik, Dena’ina Athabascan and Unangax ̂) was affectionally called the “Rondy princess” by her mother. She was born Feb. 27, 2003, at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. Her birthdate coincided with the Fur Rendezvous winter festival (known to locals as Fur Rondy) and the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Nineteen years later, when Tayler was encouraged by Emily Edenshaw (Yup’ik and Inupiaq), executive director of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, to compete for the 2022 Rondy Royalty team as the Heritage Ambassador, “I couldn’t really say no,” she laughed.

Tayler is connected to CIRI through her mother, Teresa Suzanne Thiele, and her maternal grandmother, Flora Meehan (Oskolkoff) Thiele, whose family hails from Ninilchik. Tayler’s father, the late Michael Higgins, was Cherokee, with family that originated from Oklahoma.

Tayler grew up in Anchorage, a self-described “urban Native.” “We had family photos and Native art on the walls, but I didn’t grow up going to fish camp or connecting with important cultural activities,” she explained. “But from a very young age, I had the drive to find out more about my Native heritage. My mother had created a binder of my grandmother’s paperwork related to her involvement with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska Native Sisterhood, CIRI and her village corporation.”

“My grandmother was an outstanding leader, and she had an important role in Native community,” Tayler enthused. “She was never afraid to use her voice, and she was passionate about tribal sovereignty and land rights for Alaska Native people. My grandmother passed away before I was born, and I always wondered—what was her goal, in the end? She remains my greatest inspiration.”

Tayler attended classes through the Anchorage School District’s Title VI Indian Education program, which offers academic assistance, counseling and cultural enrichment to Alaska Native/American Indian students. There, she connected with other Native students and learned to make traditional foods, bead and skin-sew. Though Tayler said she’s “really big on self-confidence—I love myself and I’m proud of everything I am,” she faced racial discrimination, especially in elementary school. “The kids could be really mean,” she recalled. “And in my Indian Education classes, because I have light skin and blue eyes, I wasn’t seen as ‘Native enough.’ But I don’t let that define me, because living my culture and representing my Native heritage is what matters.”

“I’m one-quarter Native, but in the future, I hope to see the blood quantum requirement dropped (for enrollment in most Alaska Native corporations),” Tayler continued. “I understand why it was needed for ANCSA—they needed a baseline for enrollment—but we’re human beings and shouldn’t be reduced to an arbitrary requirement that has its roots in colonialism.”

Tayler graduated from East Anchorage High School in 2021. She was already a youth intern with Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s (CITC) Youth Service Program, which offers support for high-school students and recent graduates and assists them in finding employment, furthering education and identifying leadership-development opportunities. Tayler went on to intern with CITC’s Alaska’s People and was selected as one of five outstanding young people to serve on CITC’s Youth Advisory Council, which aims to bring new perspective, voice and direction to the programs and services offered by CITC. In 2021, through CITC’s Internship Partner Program, she was offered an executive assistant position at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC).

A CIRI-affiliated nonprofit organization, ANHC is an educational and cultural institution that serves Alaskans and tourists alike by sharing permanent Alaska Native collections and offering year-round programs. Serving a five-month stint as ANHC Executive Director Emily Edenshaw’s assistant was “a wonderful opportunity,” Tayler said. “Emily is inspiring, she leads with her heart, and I’m so glad to have learned from her. She’s the one who told me about the Fur Rondy Heritage Ambassador opportunity and encouraged me to apply.”

Since 2018, an outstanding Alaska Native young woman has been selected as a Heritage Ambassador to help preserve the tradition and Alaska Native spirit of the Fur Rendezvous celebration. She serves with the Royal Court and is involved with community events and volunteer opportunities throughout the year.

“Before I went before the judges, Emily told me, ‘Your ancestors are living through you. Be proud. Act as if the title is already yours. Answer the questions from the bottom of your heart.’ Ultimately, I think that’s why I was selected. I was the youngest of the finalists and I had never done pageants. But I wanted to bring something new to the table—let them know why Native voices are important and how I can advocate for my community using my platform.”

In addition to serving out the remainder of her term as the 2022 Fur Rondy Heritage Ambassador, Tayler is pursuing a degree in business management from the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). She is involved with UAA’s Native student council and Native student advocacy group and was recently selected as an ambassador for the Arctic Youth Ambassadors Program, which seeks to elevate youth voices in international arenas, empower future leaders and build greater understanding about life in the arctic. In November, she attended the White House Tribal Nations Summit in Washington, D.C., where she spoke about the mental-health challenges facing rural Alaskans.

As for the future, at only 19 years of age, Tayler plans to compete for the Miss Alaska and Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics titles. She is looking toward graduate school and considering a career in politics. Tayler is especially passionate about leadership and opportunities for Alaska Native youth. “Lend your voice; get in touch with your community. Volunteer. Network. Put your face and your name out there,” Tayler emphasized. “Your ancestors are guiding you. It’s a privilege and an honor to carry on their legacy and traditions.”