Marleah Makpiaq LaBelle is seen in Kotzebue, where her aana, or grandmother, Clara Hensley was from.
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By Marleah Makpiaq LaBelle

Note: We love hearing from former staff and interns, and thought you might as well. Marleah LaBelle was an intern here in 2005-06.

I am a reflection of my family and ancestors. I am Sugpiaq and Iñupiaq and my ancestors called Alaska home for many generations. My mom is from Port Graham and my dad’s mom was from Kotzebue. My Iñupiaq name, Makpiaq, was given to me after my aana, grandmother Clara Hensley. From a young age, I was in awe of my parents, Jim and Susan LaBelle. They spent their careers serving Alaska Native people and communities. Although I was raised in Anchorage, my parents raised me with Alaska Native values —- sharing, respect, hard work and so much more — that today guide my work and life.

Here is a look at my path to where I am, working in tribal health and helping one remote village relocate to higher ground.

Marleah LaBelle recently visited the Southwestern Alaska community of Newtok. She is seen explaining a portable sanitation system that will help the community as it relocates.

Like my parents, I have always wanted to serve Alaska Native people and communities. To reach my vision, I needed a college education. My junior year at Alaska Pacific University, I became a single mother. While that added new challenge, my daughter, Lilani, became my determination to graduate.

After receiving my bachelor’s in business administration, I participated in First Alaskans Institute’s summer internship program. Terzah Tippin Poe, my mentor, guided me on my career and communications internship. Terzah also helped connect me with a yearlong internship at Rasmuson Foundation.

As a communications intern with the Foundation, I assisted drafting press releases and marketing materials to promote the Foundation and artist grant opportunities. I helped maintain the Foundation’s website and researched grants made in Alaska by grantmakers from the Lower 48. It was an honor to be part of a team of high caliber professionals. I enjoyed the challenges. And I saw the importance of strong relationships at work, just as my parents had taught me at home. It was at Rasmuson Foundation that I learned about the work of many nonprofits throughout the state.

Thirteen years later, I am married with two beautiful daughters; I have a master’s degree and I am project manager for the National Tribal Water Center at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). The National Tribal Water Center was created to serve as a culturally appropriate resource to maximize the health and wellbeing of Alaska Native and American Indian people through water and sanitation.

One current project supports the Newtok relocation project in Southwestern Alaska. Climate change is eroding the village land and endangering homes and the school. My role is to assist with the creation of an informational guidebook for the residents on the logistics of moving and what services will be available in their new village, Mertarvik. Some families will travel across the river channel to their new home on nearby Nelson Island in October 2019.

I know and understand the value and importance of relationships — in part because of my time at Rasmuson Foundation. I am forever changed by my experience so many years ago. I strive to be a reflection of the Rasmuson Foundation mission, “To promote a better life for Alaskans.”

The new village of Mertarvik is seen from the air during LaBelle’s recent visit to Newtok, which is eroding.