Toksook Bay, Alaska
Last week, Byron Nicholai delivered a heartfelt performance as he shared his personal story and legend of his Yup’ik ancestors to students from across Alaska currently participating in ANSEP summer components. Among those in the crowd were more than 100 middle and high school students as well as those transitioning into University of Alaska schools in the fall.
Growing up in a village of only 800 people, Byron felt small with more than 663,000 square miles of Alaska surrounding him. In his mind, his future was predetermined; his destiny was to become like the people of Toksook Bay. However, his passion for music drove him to pursue his dreams and go far beyond what was expected of him. Today, he goes wherever his music takes him, with one goal in mind: to share his culture with the rest of the world and continue the legacy of his ancestors.
“Yup’ik people worked hard for every single thing they had. They worked with their hands all day and would sometimes starve to death trying to provide for their families. They struggled to find food, shelter and the tools needed to survive. But, when they had a good hunting season, the village came together to celebrate with song and dance. I want that to live on. If they fought to stay alive, shouldn’t we fight to keep the culture alive? Because if we don’t, they would have died for nothing.”
Byron is 17 years old. Like many ANSEP students, he plays multiple roles throughout the year. During the school year, he’s a student at Nelson Island High School. In the summer, he’s a musician who travels the globe. Year round, he’s a Yup’ik teen on a mission to discover the legacy he will leave behind.
“When I arrived in Washington D.C. for my last performance, I couldn’t help but wonder how I got there,” Byron said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I never thought I would be here. I’m just a teen from a small village in Alaska, and now I’m out here doing big things and making a difference.’ I’m so proud of my culture, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.”
Byron began creating music in fifth grade when his cousin asked him to join Toksook Bay’s traditional singing group as a drummer. He was nervous and shy, but he slowly came out of his shell and grew into his own unique voice. Since then, he has developed his own style of singing and gave his first solo performance in January. His music has quickly become an inspiration for young teens across Alaska seeking to embrace their culture. His music is showcased on his I sing. You dance. Facebook page, named after one his most popular songs.
At the performance, Byron’s cousin, Clinton Bosco, even danced along to a few songs. Clinton is currently living on the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) campus, attending ANSEP’s five-week Acceleration Academy. Back home, Clinton is part of Toksook Bay’s traditional dance group with Byron.
“It makes me happy seeing him here,” said Clinton. “He’s helping our culture stay alive. In our village, many of the elders are growing old and beginning to pass. Byron will help their stories stay alive and ensure the young kids in our village know why they are here today. It’s important to know and embrace your heritage.”
Clinton hopes to continue with ANSEP and earn his engineering degree. With it, he wants to return to the village and build kayaks for his people. Knowing the art of engineering can help improve the village’s many man-made structures. As for Byron, while his original dream was to leave the village, he now hopes to return with his degree and help improve the Yup’ik way of life in Toksook Bay as well as take care of his family.
“My mom is my motivation. With my success I want to provide a better life for my mom and three younger brothers,” said Byron. “My younger brother is already showing an interest in playing drums and singing, and I can’t wait to show him everything I know.”
ANSEP students were surely motivated and inspired to pursue their academic and career goals following Byron’s performance. He ended with a bang, encouraging them to be confident in whatever it is they hope to do with their futures, just like he did.
“Regardless of where you come from and your age, all you have to do is believe in yourself. If people doubt you, prove them wrong and show them who you are. You can do whatever you set your mind to.”