For newly minted Iñupiaq doctoral graduate, opening doors for more Native scholars remains vital

portrait of woman with traditional Alaska Native chin tattooing
Dr. Cana Uluak Itchuaqiyaq is originally from Kotzebue and just completed her doctoral program in technical writing and rhetoric at Utah State University. (Cana Uluak Itchuaqiyaq)

The process of earning a doctorate takes a lot of time and work. And for one Iñupiaq woman, hearing the words doctor next to her name was emotional: Her response to passing her dissertation defense went viral this month after hundreds of thousands of people watched her reaction.

In a video Twitter post, Cana Uluak Itchuaqiyaq recorded herself getting the news she’d passed her doctoral program at Utah State University.

She covered her face and cried after being told she was the first person in the program to pass with distinction. As emotional as the whole moment was, Itchuaqiyaq said she was touched hearing how her name was presented.

“Hearing ‘doctor’ with a wholly Iñupiaq name was pretty overwhelming,” Itchuaqiyaq said.

Her doctorate is in technical writing and rhetoric. She said her focus has been on how using more traditional storytelling can inform how people communicate in more Western-focused academia.

“Using story is an incredibly effective way to communicate the stakes of an issue,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “Especially issues that affect populations or communities that are disenfranchised or that are marginalized in some way.”

Itchuaqiyaq said for the most part, academics and research institutions rely on more quantitative data in their work, often discounting personal experiences or stories. 

“People will say, when you use story for example, they will say that’s anecdotal evidence,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “And I argue that is lived experience from people who are experts in that experience describing that.”

She gave an example of Iñupiaq hunters travelling on sea ice to catch seals. She said often people will ask what the trail was like, and a hunter could respond by describing how their eyelashes froze, or how ice was sturdier on the snow machine trip out, but began to break up under the weight of the snow machine and a freshly caught seal. 

“They might use an anecdote or some kind of phrase to describe the weather. What they’re really saying is it’s between this temperature range.”

Born in Kotzebue, Itchuaqiyaq spent most of her childhood traveling back and forth between Anchorage and the Northwest Arctic. Her parents divorced when she was very young, but both were in her life growing up.

Her journey through college wasn’t conventional by most metrics. Out of high school, she went to UC Berkeley. But at that point in her life,  she wasn’t ready for college, and didn’t finish her degree. 

She and her then-husband had two children early in her 20s, and moved to Boston where he was studying. She took night classes at Harvard, but she said she struggled with substance use toward the end of her last year. 

She eventually entered a mental health facility. 

“I didn’t graduate,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “I lived instead. And I’m really proud of that choice that I made to value my own life and get help. I’m grateful that I did that.”

A year later, she graduated with honors in 2006, and continued her education with a masters in communication from Idaho State University before entering her doctoral program. 

Itchuaqiyaq said she’s remained sober since being admitted, and made other sacrifices to move forward. That included being apart from her kids as she went to school in Utah, and continuing to work on confronting trauma from her youth. 

At the end of it all, Itchuaqiyaq said her work has been worth it. 

“I’m going to be a professor at Virginia Tech. Wow!” she laughed. “It’s hard to believe for me. I was a drug addict, almost died from my drug addiction. I was this traumatized kid from the NANA region. Literally.”

Itchuaqiyaq talks openly about her experiences with trauma and substance use. She said in relating her personal experiences, she wants to show they don’t define a person, and someone can experience them and still be successful.

“It takes a lot of work, and a lot of support from others,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “But if you are stuck in some of these cycles. There’s hope for you.”

Dr. Uluak Itchuaqiyaq says that in recent years, there has been a wave of Alaska Native success stories in higher education and doctoral research, and she’s hopeful both her work and her story will help the wave grow even larger.

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Wesley is a reporter for Alaska Public Media, covering primarily city government and Anchorage life. He previously worked at Alaska Public Media as a web editor, producer and education reporter before a two-year stint in Kotzebue, AK as News Director for KOTZ-AM.

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