A young Koyukon Athabascan girl who once was expelled from an Alaska boarding school for being rowdy is now one of Indian Country’s business success stories. She is achieving her goals through a combination of grit, an inborn ability to foster productive communications between people and a firm footing in her Tribal heritage.
At age 15, Joy Huntington received word that she had received a full scholarship to attend an exclusive boarding school in Sedona, Arizona. The Verde Valley School is more than 2,600 miles — and a world apart — from Huntington’s home community of Stevens, Alaska. The tiny community with a population of less than 100 lies 90 miles northwest of Fairbanks, deep in rural Alaska, and lacks electricity, running water, roads or phone service. But Stevens offered Huntington and her brothers a cultural way out of their troubled adolescence: a rich foundation in their Athabascan heritage.
“My mom made a deliberate move to Stevens to connect us to our village and culture,” says Huntington, now 34. “I was getting in trouble in town, and my brothers had dropped out of high school.” Click To Tweet
Stevens Village offered another benefit that didn’t seem like such a wonderful thing to a teenager at the time: “I had to work hard to contribute to our family’s survival when it was 40 or 50 degrees below zero,” she says. Huntington chopped wood, helped with cooking and other chores essential to staying alive in Alaska winter weather. “One time, I had to bring home two 5-gallon containers of water in a plastic sleigh which had a crack in it. The temperature was 60 below. It was rough going, but we needed water!” That “get it done” attitude, instilled in her psyche, has become a way of life for Huntington.
But it wasn’t until after Huntington was expelled from a boarding school in Galena that she made the fateful decision to turn her life around. “When I came home, it hit me like a slap in the face that I didn’t want to live like this,” Huntington says. “I saw a twelfth-grade student reading out of an eighth-grade math book and that’s what tipped it for me.”
So, Huntington began pursuing another education option — she visited a boarding school site on the Internet and loaded in her profile information. That’s how she found Verde Valley School, which offered a far different educational atmosphere than the tiny school in Stevens Village. “I’m wearing Carhartts to school, but the kids [in the school’s brochure] were wearing uniforms,” says Huntington.
Huntington took the plunge after receiving the scholarship to Verde Valley School. And, thanks to a family member who donated his frequent flyer miles, the teenager was able to make the trip and begin a whole new life at the world-class institution. “My world got really scary,” she says. “There were students from Croatia, Macedonia, Turkey and China there.” She also had to catch up academically — and fast. “It’s a highly rigorous school,” Huntington says. “But after my first year, I received awards in chemistry, English and Spanish.”
Huntington next journeyed to Dartmouth, where in 2006, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies with a minor in environmental studies. She returned home to Stevens for a year, and then moved to Fairbanks, where she’s lived ever since.
Huntington discovered that she excelled as a community relations facilitator and in building relationships for her clients. Maryellen Tuttell of DOWL, a civil engineering and planning firm, says that Huntington’s ability to stay positive and calm in any situation — including during very contentious public meetings — makes a huge difference. “I don’t think people can learn her communications skills,” says Tuttell. “Joy has a unique skill of reaching out and being open in stressful situations.”
She started her new career out as a registered lobbyist, supporting outreach and community relations for Tanana Chiefs Conference. After realizing that her hoped-for path to a full-time job wasn’t panning out, and after a false start in the business world, Huntington launched Uqaqti Consulting in 2011. Uqaqti, pronounced “oo-kuk-ti,” is Inupiaq for “one who speaks.” The title was given to Huntington by the Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly, and Huntington accepted the honor by renaming her business, saying that being the recipient of the title from another Alaska region signifies how she builds bridges across the state.
Uqaqti’s main business lines are planning and facilitating community meetings, coordinated communications and marketing strategies, and government relations. Huntington is a DBE-certified public involvement consultant; combined with her cultural ties and knowledge of Tribal protocols, she’s become a sought-after facilitator for jobs ranging from meetings involving environmental impact statements on the North Slope to transportation planning meetings. “Any time we work in rural Alaska, we call Joy,” says Tuttell. “Her calmness and warmth make a huge difference in sometimes very contentious meeting situations.”
In fact, DOWL thinks so highly of Huntington and Uqaqti’s work that they lend her office space when she’s in Anchorage or Seattle.
“We have to stay on the productive side” in facilitation, says Huntington. “We want everybody to enjoy the time they spend working with us.” And this positive attitude and ability to bring people of disparate opinions together is what sets Huntington and Uqaqti apart from other such firms. Not to mention: “You never know if a future client is in the room,” she says.
That sense of service and open communication is reflected in the testimonials on Uqaqti’s website, which include a glowing recommendation from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “Her knowledge of Alaska Native issues and our rural communities is a great addition [to our team],” Murkowski writes. “I’ve been fortunate to know Joy for many years and she is truly an exceptional woman. She is a seasoned communicator who will help us reach Alaskans in every corner of the state.”
On the home front, Huntington balances growing her business and mothering her two girls, age 10 and 7. She recently finished serving a term on the Fairbanks City Council. “I had to make a decision to take better care of myself,” Huntington says. “So, I gave up my seat on the council.”
In addition to opening up more time for self-care, it also frees up Huntington to continue growing Uqaqti. She’s brought on two employees and may be working on up to nine projects at a time.
And of course, this dynamic woman continues to look forward, not backward. “Go all in,” she says. “Grow your skills, push yourself to the next level.”