Indigenous journalist, content creator, and activist Alyssa London gives us the details behind her recent MSNBC documentary The Culture Is: Indigenous Women.
Cowboys & Indians: In your recent MSNBC documentary The Culture Is: Indigenous Women — still available on Peacock — you hosted a fascinating discussion with seven trailblazing Indigenous women about Native identity, stereotypes, and the generational trauma within Indigenous communities. How did you become involved with this project?
Alyssa London: I have been working towards creating more Indigenous content since I was 16. And I found my ways of doing that through various platforms that I had access to, whether it was in college with The Stanford Powwow, and informing my classmates that Native people still exist and were not relegated to history books, or through all five of the pageants that I’ve done in my life. It was always my intention to showcase the vitality of Indigenous culture and the beauty of our cultures.
C&I: Who would you say has been your most important influence?
Alyssa: I grew up with a father who has devoted his career to tribal law and being a delegate to the Tlingit and Haida Central Council from Seattle, where a lot of our tribe lives, and also serving on our Native Corporations Board. So my model for being a professional career-wise was largely my father. I studied comparative studies and race and ethnicity at Stanford in part because I wanted to understand what Indigenous identity would be for my generation — and also for the next seven generations, which is a universally talked-about concept throughout all Indigenous communities.
C&I: And along the way, you were the first Tlinget to be crowned Miss Alaska USA. Indeed, you managed to use beauty pageants as platforms for your cause.
Alyssa: And the way that I approached this after the pageants was creating a brand called Culture Story. If you go on YouTube, you can see the grant-funded videos, short Web series, and documentary pieces that I created while I was in my twenties. Then my agent at United Talent Agency pitched me to NBC as someone who is clearly passionate about using media content to shine a light on Indigenous cultures. And that’s how I became the first Native contributor at NBC.
Then, soon after that, I got word from my agent that they had tapped me to be the host for The Culture Is: Indigenous Women. And I was just ecstatic and also thought that it was very serendipitous that the documentary was very much in the same realm as Culture Story. I don’t know what’s going to happen after the show. But I do hope it causes the executives at NBC and MSNBC to want to invest further in Native content.
C&I: You mentioned having to tell some of your Stanford classmates that, yes, Native People really do still exist. Evidently, there are a lot of folks out there who need to hear that.
Alyssa: Yeah, I think that’s one reason why this media content is so important, and why I’m so proud that it is in mainstream media like NBC. Because that is a common idea that I had to encounter throughout my whole childhood, even up through college and my professional life the last 10-plus years. I think that’s one reason why I’m so committed to creating premium media content in mainstream media. I want to combat that idea that we are an antiquated part of history that’s only in natural history museums.
C&I: Why do you think this misconception persists?
Alyssa: I think one of the reasons why the public thinks that Native Americans no longer exist is because the media portrayals of us to this point have largely been the 1800s type of Indian, with darker skin, long black hair, braids. But even if you come up to Alaska, you’ll see among the 225 different tribes very different appearances among all of us. I hope when people watch the documentary, they can see the varying appearances of all the different women who represent different tribes at that table.
Illustration by Heather Gatley
C&I: How would you describe your own background?
Alyssa: My mom’s side of the family are literally cowboys from Norway and Czech Republic. They had a ranch in Chester, Montana, and then my dad is literally an Indian from Alaska. And then my grandfather who grew up in a time in Alaska where there were signs throughout Ketchikan that said, “No Indians or dogs.” So I feel like I’m literally a product of a cowboy and an Indian. [Laughs.] Or a cowgirl and an Indian.
My children’s book Journey of the Freckled Indian is about a little girl being ashamed that she doesn’t look like an Indian. And then her grandfather helps her feel proud to be an Indian by telling her: “It’s just who you are. It’s just who your family is. I’m your grandpa. You can’t really change that.” To have to explain your identity for your whole life is pretty exhausting. But there have been some key moments in my life, even at beauty pageants, where I’ve been able to state it emphatically to a huge audience: “I’m Tlingit. I’m Native. This is what a Native person looks like today. Accept it.”Illustration by Heather Gatley
This issue appears in our October 2023 issue, available on newsstands or through our C&I Shop.