Gratitude Award Recipient
Velma Wallis grew up in the Fort Yukon area of Alaska near the Arctic Circle. Hearing her mother, Mae, tell stories of her Gwitch’in (Athabaskan) ancestors was so powerful it lead her down the unexpected path of becoming a world-renowned author.
After dropping out of high school, Velma was determined to write stories. After a great deal of personal work and earning a GED, she wrote the story of Two Old Women. How it came to be published may read like fiction. Her brother, Barry, was convinced this book needed to be read by others. He encouraged his cousin to share the manuscript with her professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Lael Morgan a longtime Alaska journalist, author, historian and UAF instructor used the manuscript in her writing class for discussion with her students. They loved the story and also thought it should be published. When the students started brainstorming fundraising ideas, Lael knew it was time to explore publishing the story with Epicenter Press. Two Old Women became a real book.
Two Old Women was published in 1993, at a time when an Alaska Native woman writing about her culture was not the norm. The story explored hard choices made by a nomadic people when caring for the few could harm the many. Would readers think less about the people who would desert their elders in such a manner? Velma published it anyway. Velma’s book was a hit in Alaska and soon went global being translated into seventeen languages. It won the Western State Book Award in 1993 and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award in 1994.
In Velma’s second book, Bird Girl and the Man who Followed the Sun, she developed characters who sought to find their own unique path in a structured tribal environment. Readers were given a peek into the challenges the early native people in Alaska faced. The Bloomsbury Review found that, “Because the Indian legends preserved by Wallis are not sanitized, they glow with life and truth… The result is another work rich with her own cultural context and full of universal appeal.”
Velma stepped out even further when she wrote her third book, a biography titled Raising Ourselves. Here she tells her personal story of growing up in a community of mixed cultural values, with a multitude of challenges and struggles especially with alcoholism. Her truth surprised many and has encouraged more honest communications. Writing Raising Ourselves was cathartic for Velma. Putting her thoughts and feelings on paper has helped her deal with her past. It has been nourishing for her to hear others thank her for putting words to things that they too had experienced. Raising Ourselves won the American Book Award in 2003.
Velma gives credit to her mother, Mae, for the encouragement to write honestly, her brother, Barry, for his persistence in keeping her on track to publish her stories, and to all those who supported her along the way.
After raising her four children, Velma is embracing new opportunities to live as a modern day “nomad.” As life unfolds, Velma enjoys traveling to visit relatives scattered throughout Alaska. Whether it is helping a new mother with a first-time child or an Elder moving through their aging phase, Velma has welcomed time to spend with family and helping where she can.
Velma’s vision to write honestly and publish these stories was bold, risky, and courageous. In perusing her writing path, she opened the door for others to also share their stories, begin healing, and help eliminate discrimination.
Velma’s courageous actions have inspired many across the globe.
Mahsi’ Cho! Thank You! Velma
Special thanks to Epicenter Press for publishing these treasured stories and allowing us to share Velma’s information with others. (https://epicenterpress.com/)
In April 2022 the University of Alaska Anchorage recognized Velma with a UAA Honorary Degree stating: “Wallis’ books have given future Alaska Native writers permission to explore the traditions, legends and more critical aspects of their cultures.”
Velma’s Gratitude Award presentation honoring Velma’s courageous story writing was hosted at the Denakkanaaga at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center in Fairbanks on October 4, 2023.
Thank you to Traci Gregory-Burchell for the photos of the Presentation!