In his ground-breaking 2018 debut novel, There There, one of author Tommy Orange’s ensemble of characters admires a radio show mix of old and new Indigenous music, commenting, “The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it’s stuck in the past. The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn’t pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it’s stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now, how can it be modern? So to get close to but keep enough distance from tradition, in order to be recognizably Native and modern-sounding, is a small kind of miracle (in the music he hears from three First Nations producers from Canada).”

One could take from this that Orange is describing his own artistic discovery with this novel, a brilliant weaving of the lives of twelve Native Americans on a path that concludes at an urban powwow in his home of Oakland, California. There There, an immediate bestseller, won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the Pen/Hemingway Award, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, on the fiction long list for the National Book Award, and a New York Times Book Review Top 10 Best Books of the Year.

Tommy Orange graduated from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and was a 2014 MacDowell Fellow and 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and is at work on a new novel.

North Words Writers Symposium is delighted to feature Orange as the keynote speaker at our twelfth annual event to be held May 26-29, 2021 in historic Skagway, Alaska. Orange will be joined by a faculty of Alaska and regional authors including: Laureli Ivanoff, Kim Heacox, Tina Ontiveros, M Jackson, Bryan Allen Fierro, and Nicole Stellon O’Donnell.

Laureli Ivanoff , Inupiaq and Yupik, is a freelance print and radio journalist from Unalakleet, Alaska. Her stories have been published by the New York Times and Alaska Dispatch (Daily) News and she is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio. Ivanoff specializes in bringing Indigenous perspectives to newsrooms and airways and writes of Alaska Native experience and knowledge in relation to policy, climate change and culture. She is sponsored through a new arrangement with Skagway Traditional Council to bring an Alaska Native writer to North Words every year.

Kim Heacox, a Gustavus, Alaska writer, photographer, musician and climate change activist, has authored or photographed 15 books. A former park ranger, his focus most recently in several widely circulated opinion pieces in international publications has been “in defense of the natural world that sustains us.” Heacox adds that he “doesn’t shy away from challenging power and authority, and in fact feels it’s his responsibility as a free writer living in an imperiled world.”

Tina Ontiveros, a writer, teacher, and bookseller from The Dalles, Oregon, will bring several perspectives to the North Words faculty for the first time. She describes her tough northwestern upbringing in the critically acclaimed 2020 memoir rough house, which former NWWS faculty member Jonathan Evison calls “at once a study of a disappearing culture and an exotic and achingly familiar meditation on family. Amidst an unforgettable world of sawdust and grime, snarling chainsaws and privation, Ontiveros is as vivid in her description as she is unflinching in her honesty.” Ontiveros holds a MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Goddard College.

The remaining authors were part of the 2020 faculty who appeared in the very successful Virtual North Words in August 2020. It was postponed from May due to COVID-19. We promised members of the faculty that we would have them here over the next couple of years. Three will come in 2021:

Formerly of Skagway, M Jackson is a geographer, glaciologist, and author of The Secret Lives of Glaciers and While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change. In the former, she writes, “Alaska is considered a refugium. I am enamored with that word ‘refugium.’ It implies a place where organisms can flee to ensure the species’ survival.”

Anchorage firefighter and paramedic Bryan Allen Fierro is the author of Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul, an acclaimed short story collection about the Hispanic community of East Los Angeles. Fierro brought a unique perspective on race that resonated with our virtual audience this past summer.

Fairbanks poet Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s first collection, Steam Laundry, won the WILLA Award in 2013. In her most recent book, You Are No Longer In Trouble published in 2019, she uses prose poetry and flash fiction to weave a moving story about growing up a principal’s daughter and the highs and lows of teaching today. Her third book, Everything Never Comes Your Way, will be published in 2021.

The North Words organizing faculty is composed of five northern SE Alaskans who love the writing community in the spirit of our late founder Buckwheat Donahue. They are writer-publisher Jeff Brady of Skagway, bookseller-publisher Katrina Woolford of Juneau, writer-educator Daniel Henry of Haines, artist-writer Katie Craney of Haines, and teacher-writer Kent Fielding of Skagway. See complete faculty biographies and list of their book titles on our website.

North Words is an intimate gathering that mixes panel discussions about various aspects of writing and publishing with workshops, consultations, readings, and a variety of outdoor activities, culminating with a keynote banquet. Registration will open on November 2, 2020 for the 2021 symposium. Interested participants are encouraged to act soon as our limit is 40 participants and accommodations also fill up fast.

“It is our intent to have an in-person symposium next May at the usual time,” noted Brady, “and we will work with local public health authorities to ensure we have a safe conference. However, if we find that it would be best to have a virtual conference again, we will be prepared to do so on the same dates and announce any guidelines or decisions in early spring.”

For questions, please email