Thank you for inviting me to speak here at the convention. I’m thrilled to be one of three Alaska Natives that finished in the top 3 of this year’s Iditarod. It’s an honor to be a keynote speaker at this gathering of the Alaska Native Federation.
OUR story is about connections. Connections between people, cultures, heritage, traditions, wilderness, and animals- both our domestic companions and the wildlife that support and inspire our ways of life.
I come from four generations of mushers on my Mom’s side, and three generations of mushers on my Dad’s side. My mom was born in the village of Unalakleet; my great grandfather Frank Ryan delivered mail by dog team to the surrounding villages.
My grandfather on my Dad’s side is Joe Redington Sr, known as the Father of Iditarod. He was a passionate advocate of preserving the dog mushing ways of life of Alaska Natives, and envisioned the 1,000 mile race as a way to save that traditional lifestyle within the remote native villages of interior and coastal Alaska.
I am proud to be Eskimo and a member of the Bering Straits Native Cooperation, and I enjoy many of the traditional activities that provide for my family and community: fishing, hunting, trapping, and even berry picking, but above all- dog mushing.
I’ve been mushing since I been really little. My mushing heroes have been George Attla, Herbie Nayokpuk, Joe Garnie, Russel Lane, John Baker, Isaac Oleskik, Mike Williams and many others.
I’ve been telling people I was going to win Iditarod since I could talk. One time I tried to follow my grandpa to Nome at the age of ten. The Iditarod trail was calling me, and me and my two buddies, we thought it was a good idea to try to take off three hours after my grandpa without telling our parents that we were going mushing on our big adventure to catch up to Grandpa and mush to Nome. He took a group of tourists, they all mushed a team, their own dog team from Knik to Nome. We didn’t have no gear, not much cold weather gear, extra gear, no dog food, no headlamps, and we were three hours behind him when we took off. We borrowed some dogs without asking and we shouldn’t have, and it was a lot of fun. We didn’t catch up to grandpa. Our parents, they got together and called search and rescue and they didn’t come out to look for us so the village of Knik put together a search party and they found us at 3:30 in the morning. And um, we got in big trouble but we learned a lot. And they told us y’know we have to have gear and supplies. And my parents went to grocery shopping the next day and when they came back, in our small house, I had our big dog sled inside and I had it packed to the brim- I don’t think you could even fit a toothbrush in there. And they said ‘Ryan what’s this?’ and I said ‘I’m prepared to go mushing now’. The Iditarod trail was always calling me, and from a very early age. I wanted to be out there and not only see the country but the people along the way that makes it very special.
I’ve run the Iditarod 16 times, but it didn’t always go my way. But I’d still tell people “The winner of Iditarod gets a 90lb bronze trophy of my grandpa, and that’s my dream: to one day take home that trophy.”
I learned a lot each time, and took advice from my elders and peers. And when I started living that advise more, that’s what helped me to have the result of my dream coming true: After 16 attempts spread out over 22 years, I mushed across the finish line in Nome after 8 days, 21 hours, 12 minutes and 58 seconds on the trail. I finally brought home my grandpa’s trophy.
Even though my attempts were not always successful, I still loved mushing in Alaska because I would make connections with people: getting to meet the kids, moms & dads, aunties & uncles, and the elders- the culture bearers- of the native communities were some of my highlights of my races. Many of the families that greet us mushers at the checkpoints have been involved in the sport longer than me- many were volunteers when my grandpa and dad was racing in the 70s. The Runkles, Billy Honea, the Ivanoff family, and volunteers from other races; the Kobuk 440: Lolo and Morgan, Eva and Myrna, Gary from Shaktoolik. And I’d also look forward to seeing Chuck Schaffer, Dempsey Woods, and Harry Alexi, and Mike Williams. Those guys, especially those four guys, have been strong advocates of teaching our next generations our ways of life. And another is a friend of mine John Gourley with Portugal the Man. Him and his band are strong advocates of dog mushing and our ways of life of Alaska Natives.
I’ve also been lucky to travel to the Arctic, the Aleutian Islands, and throughout Southeast Alaska all the way down to Metlakatla to visit with everyone from toddlers to the elders, exchanging stories and cultures. I think about how each person I meet is on a journey, like my journey by dog team. And each person’s journey is as unique as they are. Some people are honing their skills at fur-sewing or dancing or playing basketball, others are working at providing meat for their family and community. Some are striving to learn the language of their ancestors, and others are teaching these skills.
It is important as ever for our elders to continue to teach our young people our ways of life, and for everyone to nurture the connections that bind us.
Another experience I cherish is traveling the trails that connect these communities and getting to see the incredible landscapes and nature that supports the ways of life of Alaska Natives. A healthy environment is the foundation for the elements of nature that supports our ways of life: strong caribou herds, clean lakes, rivers and seas teeming with fish, coastlines and forests and tundra… protecting these places is essential not just for the wildlife and plants and dog trails found there, but because we need this wilderness for our physical, emotional, Spiritual, and mental health. Protecting the wilds equals protecting people.
I find often that when I need to de-stress, to find peace, to focus my mind, I hook up a team, and head out on a trail. On that trail, life is simplified. With the help of my dogs, and the serenity of nature, I disconnect from bad stuff, and connect to the good stuff in my life.
After winning Iditarod, I reflected on a couple things I learned in the process:
NUMBER ONE: The trophy actually weighs 101 pounds not 90 pounds, and
NUMBER TWO: I’ve learned that it’s okay to struggle, to scratch, to learn from your mistakes, to regroup, and then to keep moving forward.
We ALL face adversity. What matters is how you respond. Do you give up? Or do you get stronger? Do you hunker down… or do you keep moving forward?
Obstacles I’ve had to overcome on the trail range from an angry moose, to fallen trees, to severe storms. And each time I’ve had to figure out the best way to move forward. But off the trail, the challenges and limitations you perceive in life are frequently in your own mind. Believe in yourself, and connect yourself with others that encourage and believe in you as well, and keep moving forward.
In the words of one of my mushing heroes, George Attla:
“Anybody that can get on top of their problems and drive their thoughts in the right direction is a winner. Every champion thinks ‘WIN’. No matter what you’re doing, winning is all in your head.”
To everyone in this room, and everyone listening at home, our stories are connected. Although only one musher can stand on the runners, I did not get here alone. I had YOUR support all those years and over all those miles, and especially this year. I had the support of my family, my mom Barbara Ryan, and my dad Raymie Redington. I had the support of my brothers, friends, fans, and my partner Sarah, without whom I wouldn’t be here today.
I look forward to the future where we once again celebrate our collective wins, and our connections to nature, traditions, and each other. Quayana and thank you!