Alyssa (Yáx̱Ádi Yádi) London, Tlingit, had been Miss Alaska USA for eight days and she had already been presented with regalia and named a cultural ambassador by Sealaska Heritage Institute, interviewed on television, traveled to New York City for Fashion Week, and was getting ready to head to Washington, D.C. to speak at an National Congress of American Indians youth summit.
“It’s really a whirlwind,” London said. “Once you get crowned, your life really changes in a big way.”
She expected, and wanted, nothing less. “I realize with this platform that I can do so much for our Alaska Native and American Indian youth,” she said. “It’s a platform that brings a lot of awareness to hot-button issues in Indian country. I’m able to be a voice for that.”
Who is Alyssa London? She’s an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and radio talk show host, and a graduate of Stanford University. And now Miss Alaska USA.
Alyssa London won the Miss Alaska USA title on February 4 (the first Tlingit to win the title, according to Sealaska Heritage Institute). In this interview with ICMN conducted on February 12, London talks about the path she took to get where she is today and what she hopes the future brings – not just for her, but for other young American Indians and Alaska Natives.
What has your schedule been like since you won the title of Miss Alaska USA?
My phone – I had left it down in the green room [at the pageant] once I made the top five. I had announced on Facebook that I had made top five and when I went back down I had 50 text messages, 300 Facebook requests, and 1,000 likes on my announcement photo that someone posted. I’ve never gotten that much media attention in my entire life. It’s really continued all week – It really puts you on the map.
To answer your question about what the actual schedule has been, I had some interviews with local stations – it’s been sort of a media week. Miss Alaska USA Teen Tana Bartels flew down from Fairbanks and we were on the KTVA morning show. And whenever we go to breakfast in town, if we’re wearing our sashes and crowns, people will come up and want photos or want to treat us to something. It’s really amazing. The reason I think it’s that way is it shows that you stayed dedicated to something and achieved a dream, and that’s inspiring to people because everyone has a dream that they’re trying to achieve. And so they get to see someone in a very public way having achieved it. That’s one of the reasons it causes people to get really excited. They want to see you be successful.
What’s coming up for you as Miss Alaska USA?
Sealaska Heritage Institute appointed me as a cultural ambassador and they loaned to me this beautiful regalia. As a cultural ambassador, I’m going to go to NCAI and address a gathering of youth, as well as go to a banquet event and to the opening ceremonies for the summit. [NCAI executive director] Jackie Pata said she’d like to recognize me and give me a moment to speak and address the audience.
As Sealaska Heritage’s president said, I’m the face of our people; I’m in a public persona now. And how I conduct myself, the way that I speak, and the places I go are a reflection on my people. I want to paint us and American Indian people in the best light possible and give us greater representation in the media, because I think it’s really important for our Native youth to have people who are looked up to in the media that are very proud of their culture, as they should be too.
Some of the Miss USA [contestants] have asked, “So you’re Alaska Native,” and they’ll ask me how much I am and I say I’m a hundred percent, and that’s because that’s who I am – it’s my culture, it’s who I am, and if I can be a person that [helps] other Native youth feel really proud and self-assured in their identity, then I’m doing my job.
Has becoming Miss Alaska USA given you a platform on issues that you otherwise wouldn’t have?
Yes, it opens doors to people I want to speak with. When I’m in D.C., I’ll meet with my state’s representatives and senators, and I’ll get to sit down and talk with them.
I began my motivational speaking and public speaking career before the pageant, but now a lot of the things that I encourage youth to think about, in terms of achieving their dreams, I have greater legitimacy because I achieved one of mine. And, again, there’s something about the crown and sash that makes people excited. I think it’s that you achieved one of your dreams, and it makes them think about their own dreams, and you become an example of persistence and determination with an outcome attached to it. That’s why I think it really opens doors.
Tell me about your degree.
I got my degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity. I interned for my Native corporation, Sealaska, between my freshman and sophomore year. Our corporation is always focused on rural economic development in order to provide jobs and economic opportunity to our tribal member-shareholders, and that major allowed me to focus on economic development and, specifically, how to make a difference in Alaska … I really credit my father for giving me that outlook on the world, that the work you do needs to be in the service of others in order to be fulfilling.
There has been a lot of discussion over the years about pageants – concern that they put too much emphasis on physical appearance. Many local pageants have become scholarship pageants and they’re more about feeling comfortable in your own skin, giving contestants a platform through which they can become involved in community service and speak out on those issues they’re concerned about. What do you say to people who might be critical about pageants like Miss USA and concerned about their effect on body image among young women?
What you just described is the Miss USA system. I’ve met 12 women from around the country who are state title holders and each one of them is what the program calls “confidently beautiful,” meaning our beauty comes from the inside and then out. The emphasis is on how we are contributing to our communities, how we are making a difference, how we are able to articulate what matters to us and what we want to use the title for in order to cause change… You can just go down the list of every woman who’s a state title holder; she stands for something and speaks out on issues.
Tell me more about how you want to improve understanding about Native peoples and culture.
I have a photoshoot in traditional regalia scheduled in Juneau. As a cultural ambassador and someone whose Facebook page, website and Instagram are growing – there’s more eyes on what I post – if I can post some photos of me in Tlingit regalia, then [those social media followers] will start to learn about the vitality of my culture, because they otherwise might not know about it.
All the [state titleholders] mean well, but there have been some questions from some of them – “Alaska Natives are not all Eskimos?” But it’s just a lack of knowledge. So, I can be a voice for Indian country, because I’m the only state titleholder who is active in her culture and I would be, if I’m selected as Miss USA, the first Native American to become Miss USA. I went to the Miss USA offices today and asked them about that. So, I’m really hoping to gain a lot of support from Indian country because I think they need a Miss USA who’s Native American. At least one, right?
Imagine the cross-cultural understanding you’ll be able to build if you’re able to accomplish that.
I understand that I do not have dark skin, and I think that is a great thing, because I think about some of my good friends who are Tlingit. Their kids are redhead or blond-haired but they’re Tlingit and they’re being raised Tlingit and being taught their language and that’s this generation of American Indians and Alaska Natives – we’re proud of our culture, we’re maintaining our heritage, we’re putting a new spin on it, but we don’t want our identity to be challenged. We want to be accepted, we want to be invited to the table because we’re here. And that’s really what I can do with this. There’s not enough Native American representation in the media and I have one of the biggest stages in order to make an impact and showcase our people.
Let’s go back to what you spoke about at the Miss Alaska USA pageant.
My focus is on a couple of points: One is empowering women to be self-sufficient and independent through entrepreneurship. And so I’m invited to speak at the Women’s Entrepreneurship Awards banquet in Anchorage.
I’m a proud, self-employed entrepreneur. I took this class at Stanford called “Design your Life,” and took a lot of concepts that I apply to my mindset out of that, meaning the work you do should be in the service of others in order for you to feel really fulfilled in what you do, but it should also be in alignment with that fire inside you that makes you excited and that you need to honor that. Ever since I have honored that feeling of what gets me excited, then amazing things have happened.
I love being a motivational speaker to youth, because I coach them on challenging their limiting beliefs through a process of “What do you think you should do with your life?,” “What do you want to do?,” and “What are the limiting beliefs that are standing in your way?” I ask them that question and I get a few answers, and I answer it for myself because I wasn’t always doing exactly what I wanted. There were times when I was confused. And so they see that it’s a process and you don’t just arrive at your destination – I’m still not at my destination – but it just helps them realize that this growth happens, that just because their life is how it is right now, however it is, it’s going to change and adapt if they put their time and energy into it. Goals are not necessarily just about the destination, it’s about the growth in it.
When your term as Miss Alaska USA is finished, what do you hope you can look back on and say you accomplished?
That I inspired a whole generation of American Indian and Alaska Native youth to reach really high for their goals and dreams, and that I had an opportunity to stand in front of them and share my story and that in some way that helped them get that little push inside of themselves to go after what that voice inside of them was telling them is their calling.
As Miss Alaska USA, you’re going to have an open door to a lot of legislators and decision makers. Is there any legislation of concern that you plan on talking about or bringing up?
In Alaska, we’re going through a recession and I would like to use my economic development background in order to weigh in on ways we can fix that, in particular, tourism. In rural Alaska, I think the state could invest in that a bit more directly.
One of the ways I want to participate in that is, I’m in talks with the Alaska Channel — I’m a travel talk show host on KOAN radio, I interview small-business owners and people who travel extensively and I love bringing those stories to light. So, if I could do those stories on camera and show the world areas of Alaska and Indian country that they aren’t familiar with and might not feel comfortable going to, that I can show them how they are welcome there, it can help bring new visitors and tourism dollars to far-reaching parts of our state.
I want to talk to state legislators about my ideas and how we can diversify our economy from dependence on oil – through tourism, small business, entrepreneurship, getting more women to be entrepreneurs and into business. Statistics show it is harder for women entrepreneurs to get funding. That’s another conversation I’d like to have.
ALYSSA LONDON AT A GLANCE
Parents: J. Tate London, assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, and Debi London.
Grandparents: Ernie and Gail Boyd of Ketchikan, Alaska.
Education: B.A. in comparative studies in race and ethnicity in 2012 from Stanford University; she was active in the Stanford American Indian Organization, Alaska Native Student Association, Ultimate Frisbee club team, running club, and the Stanford Daily.
Career: Motivational speaker; host of “Alaska Travelgram” live talk show, KOAN 95.1FM/1080 AM; founder of Culture Story, a business through which she sells her own works featuring Tlingit designs; Miss Alaska USA 2017; cultural ambassador, Sealaska Heritage Institute.
What others say about her: “We are in a race against time to revitalize our Native languages and we are working to raise world awareness about Northwest Coast arts and to rightfully establish the art form as a national treasure. Alyssa has already proven herself as a leader and cultural ambassador, and she is now in a unique position to put a big spotlight on our goals and issues.” — Rosita Worl, president, Sealaska Heritage Institute.