Amplifying Native America

Broadcaster Alyssa London wants to make sure Indigenous voices are heard.

July 2023

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A collage of photos of Alyssa London, including the front page of the May 19, 2017, Juneau Empire newspaper featuring her in the Miss USA pageant, a photo of her in Native regalia, a photo of her with recently caught fish, a photo of her running track in high school, and a photo of her as a young child holding a starfish.

Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Alyssa London; Juneau Empire; Brian Wallace/Sealaska Heritage Institute; Courtesy Alyssa London (2)

When Alyssa London was in second grade, her parents came to class and told a Northwest Coast Native story about the Raven, one in which the trickster-transformer brings light to the world. It was a new story for the Seattle-area 7- and 8-year-olds, as was the news that London was Native, a member of the Tlingit Nation of southeast Alaska. Steeped as they were in the Disney depiction of Pocahontas—the film was released the summer before they entered kindergarten—not all of them were receptive to the information.

“I have lighter skin,” says London, ’12, whose father is also a member of the Tlingit Nation and whose mother has Norwegian and Czech ancestry. “The kids started teasing me: ‘You’re not Native. You don’t look like Pocahontas.’ ” The backbiting about her multiracial identity followed her out onto the playground and, well, continues to this day. “This desire to know who you are and where you come from,” London says, “was instilled in me early on.” 

It wasn’t until one day in February 2017—under the bright glare of lenses and lights, when she became the first Tlingit person to wear the Miss Alaska USA crown—that she says she stopped questioning her identity and felt true acceptance and pride in who she is. 

“I remember wearing my gown and having the Native community up on stage with me,” says London. “They were saying, ‘You are Native, and still, you are here.’ I felt so claimed by that. It took me until I was 27 to really accept that we are Indigenous no matter what we look like.

“I don’t like the way mainstream media has portrayed Native Americans,” says London. But as a former pageant winner who has springboarded to a multimedia career, she has put herself in a position to do something about it. She uses several platforms—as a motivational speaker, a radio and video host, a children’s book author, and, most recently, an NBC News and MSNBC contributor—to fight for recognition of all Native people, increase media coverage of Native issues, and help keep Native cultures alive. 

Pageants with a purpose

Like most Indigenous people in the United States, London didn’t grow up on her nation’s ancestral lands. Native culture, though, was built into the fabric of her family’s life. There were after-school Native education programs and summer camps in Alaska for London and her three younger siblings—two sisters and a brother. London, especially, took to learning about her Native culture, says her father, J. Tate London, ’84, JD ’88, an assistant U.S. attorney and tribal liaison. 

“My grandpa called me his freckled Indian,” says London. Her grandfather Ernie Boyd lived on ancestral lands in Ketchikan, Alaska, and was an original Tlingit enrollee under the 1971 federal Alaska Native Land Claim Settlement Act. Tate London is an enrolled member of the Tlingit tribe, and he and his wife, Debi, applied for and received a Certificate of Degree of Alaska Native Blood, issued by the federal government, for each of their children. Since eligibility in their tribe is passed on through lineal descent, London was officially recognized, as her children would be, and their children after them, in perpetuity. 

“When I was growing up, I didn’t understand that being Native Alaskan was citizenship-based, and that it couldn’t be taken away from me,” she says. 

In high school, London followed in the running shoes of her mother, who was a track star in college. An article in the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter featured London the summer after high school graduation as the winner of the Young Native Writers Essay contest who had set track records and was preparing to compete for the title of Miss Seafair at her first pageant. (She didn’t place, but a spark was kindled.) Then it was off to Stanford, where, she says, “I considered myself more Nerd Nation than anything else.” She connected with other Native students on campus, helping plan the annual student-led Powwow and tutoring Indigenous children in the community. Still, she got the occasional odd look when she told people she was Native, and it bothered her. She continued to search for answers to those nagging questions about her identity, this time through academic lenses, like anthropology and history. She learned about the cultures of the Indigenous people of the Americas, their stories, and their pasts.

Photo of Alyssa London with her father, Tate London, and grandfather Ernie Boyd, as well as photo of London in Native regalia and a Miss USA sash and crown.HERITAGE: London with her father and grandfather. (Photos: Courtesy Alyssa London; Brian Wallace/Sealaska Heritage Institute)

“Many still want to see to it that Native Americans disappear,” says London, who majored in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and wrote an honors thesis on rural economic development in Southeast Alaska. She worries about the controversial practice of using blood quantum—requiring a minimum fractional ancestry, such as 1/4 of one’s ancestors being from the tribe—to determine citizenship. Initially a system that the federal government developed to limit benefits, blood quantum is now one of two main methods—the other being lineal descent—that sovereign Native nations use to establish criteria for citizenship. Those who advocate for its continued use say it helps nations preserve culture and safeguard resources; those who prefer lineal descent, like London, are concerned that after generations of intermarriage, many nations could cease to exist. 

After graduating, London moved back to the Seattle area, where she worked in marketing for Microsoft and returned to competing in pageants. “I loved pageants—the sisterhood, the performance aspect,” she says. “For me, pageants provided a platform to speak about the beauty and vitality of Native culture today and embracing all aspects of who you are as a mixed-race person.” Sometimes she sang Native songs for the talent competition, like the Eagle Raven love song, and sometimes it was pop ballads, like Beyoncé’s “I Was Here.” 

“For her, it was always a pageant with a purpose,” says Tate London. “And she was good at it.” London was crowned Miss Alaska USA in February 2017, then a few months later placed in the top 10 for Miss USA. She appeared on national television in a Tlingit-inspired robe that bore the crest of her Eagle/Killer Whale clan. The Las Vegas audience watched as she began her walk down the runway in red high heels, pausing for effect to throw the deep red robe back. It transformed into the train of an elegant evening gown. The video went viral.

“I wanted to show that Native Americans can live in two worlds,” London says. “We can be Native and wear regalia, then throw it behind you and be a mainstream member of Western society. We can transform back and forth, just like the Raven.” The next day, a Juneau Empire newspaper story used her own words from the pageant for its headline: Tlingit áyá xát. I am Tlingit.

Still, there were the trash talkers, the insults, the uninformed questions. Contestants asked her, “How Native are you?” One YouTube commenter sniped: “She doesn’t look at all Native. She gives me the ‘Oh . . . I’m 1/32nd exotic! So, I’m special’ kind of vibe.”

“It’s still very hurtful,” London says. “I always have to go back to my dad, who reminds me, ‘You know who you are.’ ”

Becoming a storyteller

After winning Miss Alaska USA, London worked as a cultural spokesperson for the Sealaska Heritage Institute, traveling across Alaska for speaking engagements and to host Native events. She discovered a passion for public speaking and began remaking herself as a broadcaster and a media host, as well as an executive communications coach. From 2021 to 2022, she hosted Native America Calling, a live call-in program broadcast on 90 public, community, and tribal radio stations in the United States and Canada. Throughout it all, she continued to produce her YouTube series Culture Story, traveling throughout Indian Country to interview Indigenous people about their food traditions, their artwork, their celebrations, and their lives. In 2020, PBS-affiliated FNX—First Nations Experience—began to broadcast episodes of Culture Story on national television. And that got her noticed by NBC.

‘What the vast majority of Americans know about Indigenous culture is through movies or mascots. How do we change that? By bringing people like London, and her expertise, to the table.’

Last year, London moved to the Los Angeles area after signing a contract as an occasional on-air contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. She works primarily as a commentator when news breaks on Native American issues. She also was hired to host MSNBC’s The Culture Is: Indigenous Women, one in a four-part series on women of color. 

“I’m now in a position of being a Native voice at NBC, to shine a light on Native cultures today,” says London, who led a roundtable discussion with seven prominent Indigenous women during the June 4 MSNBC show. They discussed issues long important to London: Native identity, the future of blood quantum, generational trauma, and the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The show also featured an interview London conducted with Rep. Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. 

“What the vast majority of Americans know about Indigenous culture is through movies or mascots,” says Omnika Thompson, the producer of the show. “How do we change that? By bringing people like London, and her expertise, to the table.”

London hopes this leads to a regular gig. “That would be my dream, an ongoing show that talks about current events in our country as they affect Native American culture,” she says. 

During her reign as Miss Alaska USA, London traveled across the state speaking, reading, and singing to Native kids in schools and in hospitals. She went looking for a children’s book to read to them that embraces the identity of multiracial Native Americans like her—a book that might have helped her as a second grader—but never found one. During the pandemic, when her public appearances slowed down, she decided to write and self-publish a picture book (she is now under contract for two more). It’s titled Journey of the Freckled Indian: A Tlingit Culture Story.

“There once was a young girl named Freckles,” the book begins. “At recess kids made fun of her. They would say, ‘You don’t look like an Indian. You have freckles. Real Indians are brown and have long black hair. You don’t look like that at all.’ ” 

The girl’s father says, “It’s time to visit grandpa.” They fly to Ketchikan, Alaska, where her grandpa greets her: “Tlingit áyá xát.”

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at

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