Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Alaska House: Part 2

Native people pursue dreams in New York City


It took Andrei Jacobs five months and 8,200 miles to realize he wanted to move from Alaska to New York City.

In 2008, Jacobs, 34, participated in a walk put on by Native American activism organization the American Indian Movement. AIM organized a walk from California to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Longest Walk in 1978. The group’s goal for both walks was to bring to light issues affecting Native Americans.

“(The walk was for) American Indians, Alaska Natives and indigenous people around the world who felt corporate and government interests were more powerful and were desecrating places that native people found holy,” said Jacobs, an Alaska Native, who is a quarter Yup’ik Eskimo and a quarter Inupiaq Eskimo.

Jacobs accompanied his brother on the trip, which he described as a life-changing experience. One month after he returned from Washington, D.C., Jacobs said he knew it was time for him to leave Alaska for good.

“After having met thousands and thousands of people and having experienced all the different types of emotions, I wanted to continue that and not return to my status quo … especially living in such a remote area,” Jacobs said. “New York was the logical choice for me.”

He packed his things and left for New York to pursue what he perceived to be a life full of opportunity.

And Jacobs is not alone. According to the American Indian Community House, a non-profit organization serving New York City’s Native American population, that’s the same reason many native people move to the City.

“I think it’s an economic opportunity like (it is for) any people. I don’t think Native Americans are any special group in that way,” Jacobs said. “There’s a dream that people have — making it on Broadway, making it as an artist … making it as a banker. … I’m nothing different than normal folks. It’s just the same basic story.”

With an estimated population of about 30,000, the Native American community in New York City is not insignificant, as many are surprised to learn.

“I can understand the surprise because I’m surprised myself. (But), I think it is hard for many of us to meet because … we’re a bit disconnected,” Jacobs said. “We’re not mobilized … politically, socially, governmentally, the way that we should be.”

While Jacobs admits he doesn’t know many of other Native Americans living in New York, he’s doing what he can to keep his culture alive in this urban setting.

Jacobs works as gallery associate at Alaska House, 109 Mercer St., a nonprofit organization that represents Alaska through art, education and special events. Alaska House is the only organization in New York City dedicated to promoting Alaska’s history and culture.

“As an ambassador, we have events that focus on Alaskan politics, government, our economy, our environment, cultures throughout Alaska (and) music,” he said. “If there’s any question that a person has about Alaska, somebody here’s going to be able to answer it.”

The Alaska House is a vibrant, two-floor gallery in SoHo. It celebrates the uniqueness of Alaska and Alaska Natives, and helps educate and entertain residents and tourists alike.

But for Jacobs, life isn’t only about focusing on his heritage.

“My great-grandfather was the first Eskimo Episcopal minister, and he helped to abolish Eskimo dancing and art in one community on Nunivak Island … I’m not really too happy about that idea,” he said. “I want to perpetuate culture and help to create it versus thinking about my past.”

For the 18 months Jacobs has lived in New York, he’s grown to appreciate city living and the many available opportunities.

“I wanted to see what perhaps I could get into (by moving to New York City). And I’m still in search of that idea, that vision I had,” Jacobs said. “I’m getting there — inch-by-inch, day-by-day.”

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