Alaska Native studies associate program celebrates first graduate

by Matt Jardin  |   

Cammie Wickline, retired U.S. Army staff sergeant and the first graduate of the Associate of Arts in Alaska Native Studies at UAA
Cammie Wickline, retired U.S. Army staff sergeant and the first graduate of the Associate of Arts in Alaska Native Studies at UAA. (Photo courtesy of Cammie Wickline)

Le’Kwaa Xoots roughly translates to fighting spirit bear. Inspired by her frequent dreaming of bears, it is the Tlingit name Cammie Wickline gave herself, and it is a language she was able to learn during her time in UAA’s Alaska Native Studies (AKNS) associate program, of which she is the very first graduate.

“It's pretty cool to learn your culture’s language and be able to say your name,” said Wickline.

Founded in 2020, the AKNS A.A. program was established to provide students a critical perspective on Alaska Native cultures, histories, politics and organizations. This opportunity to rediscover and reconnect with heritage is especially important given the colonial treatment of North America’s Indigenous populations, which contributed to the decline of Indigenous languages and knowledge in Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48.

In addition to rediscovering her native tongue, Wickline learned about her rich background, which was something that always eluded her. Born in Anchorage, she was adopted by an Army family at 13 days old and moved to Fairbanks. Shortly after, duty called and the Wicklines were stationed in Massachusetts — her adopted family’s home state — and then Arizona in her teenage years.

“Learning about those parts of myself and why I am the way that I am deep down felt really good,” said Wickline. “Inupiats are very intuitive and inventive. They can not have much and still make anything out of it. That’s why you can’t ever tell me there's no way, because once you tell me that, I'm going to find a way. Athabaskans have a tradition of if they were making something like a blanket and they knew they were going to pass, they would give that to someone else to finish so they wouldn’t be stuck with the energy of something unfinished. That's why I finished my 20 years in the Army and why my parents have always said that I have stick-to-itiveness. Tlingits are very structural and that's exactly how I am. I'm very big on courtesy and respect.”

Before returning to Anchorage and enrolling at UAA, Wickline experienced close brushes with extended family and made several attempts to explore her ancestry. In high school, her family decided to move to North Pole to put her in the best position to start learning about where she came from. However, after graduating high school, Wickline joined the Army in 1998, following her adopted father’s footsteps, as well as his father’s, who earned a Purple Heart serving in World War II.

Cammie Wickline, retired U.S. Army staff sergeant and the first graduate of the Associate of Arts in Alaska Native Studies at UAA
Cammie Wickline, retired U.S. Army staff sergeant and the first graduate of the Associate of Arts in Alaska Native Studies at UAA. (Photo courtesy of Cammie Wickline)

Stationed in Germany her first year in service, Wickline used the early internet in her spare time to dig up her birth records. This discovery started a chain reaction that led her to meet her birth mother, who then lived in Norway, over the phone. During their hours long phone calls catching up, Wickline also learned she had a third cousin who lived only two towns over from her in Massachusetts and even operated a gift shop that her adopted father frequented. She was also unknowingly stationed in the same unit at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, with her first cousin on her mother’s side, only speculating until learning more through a family tree.

“Things happen the way they're supposed to happen,” said Wickline. “I'm forever grateful to have met every side of my birth family and my adopted family. Those years of looking into my heritage and finding out about my life are why I wanted to go back to Alaska and teach my kids our heritage and let them see where we came from.”

Wickline retired from the Army after 20 years of working in logistics and training, achieving the rank of staff sergeant. With two daughters of her own and a longing for colder climates, she knew she wanted to return to Alaska and pursue an education. Originally intending to enroll in software engineering with the plan to return to the Army to improve its training infrastructure, Wickline noticed the AKNS A.A. program and thought it was a serendipitous way to learn about her heritage more formally and pass on the knowledge to her kids. Plus, the chance to speak her language was too good to pass on.

After becoming the AKNS A.A. program’s first alumna, Wickline temporarily moved back to Fort Riley, Kansas — where she was stationed last —  so her oldest daughter could spend one last summer with friends before everyone goes their separate ways for college. Afterward, Wickline will return to Alaska for a third time to pursue business and entrepreneurship at UAA, combining that with her AKNS A.A. to start a new software venture with the goal of improving the relationship between the community and wildlife.

Her daughters are also eager to return and continue learning about their background. Like mother, like daughter.

“It’s been great to see the community take the classes in this program and leave with a changed view of our history, our way of life and Alaska itself. A lot of them are going to go on to do great things,” said Wickline. “It was an honor beyond words to pursue this degree and have professors of deep Alaska cultural backgrounds. This program is a huge step for Alaska and its Indigenous heritage being woven into current higher education. I would like to give thanks to the Dena'ina homeland.”

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