Sociology and Alaska Native Studies, Class of 2014
Hometown: Eagle River, Alaska
Fun Fact: Is working on a research grant proposal titled “Race, gender and aesthetic differentiation among front-end employees in the restaurant industry in Anchorage, Alaska”
Laura Orenga de Gaffory is a study in contrasts. She was born in France (her father is a French citizen), but she is also one-quarter Inupiaq Eskimo—she identifies more with the latter. She grew up in Eagle River, Alaska, but calls Portland, Oregon, home—she mentions culture shock upon moving back to Anchorage. She is a klutz at the blanket toss; her grandmother was a Native Olympic blanket tosser. She is a sociology major but dates a geologist.
Laura came to UAA with the intention of finding out more about her Alaska Native heritage. Her mother moved Laura and her brother back to Alaska from France when Laura was only 2 years old, so although she has the French last name, she has the Alaska roots. Her grandmother (and namesake), Laura Bergt, was an influential figure during the early days of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and proponent of Native rights. She was also a model, a Native athlete, a Congressional candidate and good friends with the late Ted Stevens.
Unfortunately, Laura’s grandmother died before Laura was born. And her mother didn’t often talk about their Native heritage while Laura was growing up. Her stepdad recently gave her boxes of photos found after her mother passed, and that is really all she has.
“I’ve actually learned more at UAA about my grandmother than I have my whole life asking family members,” Laura muses. A lot of people here in the Native Studies program knew her. In fact, one of Laura’s professor’s remembers taking her grandmother in for a time when she was a teenager.
It took Laura awhile, but it was when she was living, working and going to school in Portland that she realized she wanted to return to her roots and find ways to reconnect with them. Like many Alaskan young adults fresh out of high school, she made the move Outside when she was 18 to find adventure and learn about herself. Her mother had just passed away, and she wanted to give life a go on her own.
And she did a great job at it. She was working full-time at Embassy Suites Hotel in food service and going to school, ultimately earning three associate’s degrees from Portland Community College and Portland State University.
But something was missing. She didn’t know how to put together all her education into a meaningful bachelor’s degree. She saw others around her still living off their parents and she started to get anxious about what would come next.
“I finally decided that I had to see what it was like to be an adult in Alaska,” Laura says. “I had spent my whole adult life in Portland, and I wanted to make better memories of Alaska. I couldn’t keep thinking negatively about the place; it wasn’t the place.”
At the same time, she was terrified of coming home because she didn’t want her family to think she was failing. Her stepdad always taught her that the world didn’t owe her anything, and she was proud of the things she had accomplished in Portland. She decided to make a plan: transfer to UAA, give it a year in Alaska and if she didn’t like it she could always move back to Oregon.
That was two years ago. Laura has dug in and really found her niche in sociology and Native studies. It’s a great combination that inspired her to help resurrect the Sociology Club (she is vice-president) and get involved with the Alaska Native Oratory Society, and she eventually wants to give back to her regional corporation, NANA, by focusing on developing and running programs for kids to connect them with their Alaska Native culture. Alcoholism is also an issue she wants to tackle (she’s had family members who have battled the disease), and she’s confident that she’s finally found a course of study that will help her make a difference. She plans to graduate in December 2013.
“Learning more about who my family is has been really inspiring because it makes me want to do better things, maybe live up to the dreams of my grandmother,” she says. “I really encourage other people to start with who they are, their culture, and go from there when finding their way. You can learn a lot about yourself by looking around you and finding the strengths that are present in where you come from.”
Also, if you want changes to happen in your life, you have to change it yourself. “Things don’t just change around you; you have to do something about your own circumstances,” she says.
Sure she returns to Portland for a few days every six months or so, “to get my liberal on,” she laughs, but at the same time she is indulging in vegan food, she can value the subsistence lifestyle of her ancestors. She jokes about clown bikes, and tattoos, and scenes from Portlandia that may be more based in fact than fiction, but she still hears her heritage calling her from the Far North.
“I’m trying to connect both of my worlds and appreciate them,” she says. “It’s better to be an insider than an outsider. And UAA has been a good catalyst for making my way back to the inside of my Eskimo heritage.”
Hear Laura read her grandmother’s 1969 ANCSA speech at a recent Alaska Native Oratory Society event.
Fellow students: Get involved with the Sociology Club!