Col. Wayne Don is co-keynote speaker at the annual AFN Convention Thursday through Saturday at the Dena’ina Center in Downtown Anchorage. We caught up with him for a little question and answer session ahead of the event.
What was it like growing up on Nunivak Island and how did that shape your view on the world?
Well, Nunivak Island sits about 600 miles west of Anchorage, so it’s in the Bering Sea. The way I grew up was very much a combination of subsistence and what we would equate as modern-day living. Up until I was in high school I didn’t have any running water and the sanitation in the high school was the only place there was running water. There were about 30 kids K-12 in the school and we had four kids in my graduating class. It was a really neat way to grow up just from a perspective point of view – it was just a really small community and everyone knew each other, but I think that has shaped the way I see the world more than anything coincidentally is a memory I have of my childhood.
I lived right next door to my grandparents, and as a 6-year-old boy – I really don’t know what to attribute this to or why I picked up on this – every morning after getting dressed I would go over and see my grandparents. My 6 year-old logic just told me something was wrong with grandpa because every morning, he would be in bed. Grandma would always sit me down, give me some crackers and water to chew on and talk to me and ask me questions about how I was doing. My grandma would dote on me and at the end, my grandpa would always give me a chore to do which usually involved shoveling snow or helping grandma but shortly afterwards, my grandpa passed away and it turns out he had cancer. From that experience, I learned two things as a child and as a man; empathy and service and responsibility. I think internally I knew that my grandpa wasn’t going to be around and my grandma was going to need someone to help her.
As the only person from your graduating class who went on to college, what was the impetus for you to go to UAF?
It’s interesting that you ask that question. As a senior in high school, I applied for and was accepted into the Rural Alaska Honors Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and it was a college prep program. I was familiar with it because my older brother was a part of the program but more than anything else, I had applied to West Point and was nominated by Senator Stevens and I received a telegram back from West Point that said ‘you’re a great candidate and we would love to have you, but the math score on your ACT is a little low so go to college for a year to improve it.’ But after a year of being at UAF I realized I wasn’t going to go to West Point. About halfway through my college experience I enlisted in the Army Reserves and went through basic training that summer. That was a life-changing experience for me because it really set the focus of my life.
You left Nunivak at 18, travelled to Bosnia at 23 and then were stationed all over the world. Was there anything from home that you would carry on your journeys?
I would have to say cultural values of understanding and humility. With all the places I have travelled all over the world, those things are timeless and valuable regardless of what role you find yourself in. Whether it’s as a peacekeeper in a war-torn country, or in a place where active war is going on. As a person and a soldier, those things are important to me and have served me well in my life.
In 2011, you were recognized with the prestigious Marshall Memorial Fellowship, an award that gave you the opportunity to travel to Europe to meet with leaders from around the world. What was the most memorable part of this experience?
I can’t really pinpoint a singular experience, but what I can tell you is that it was amazing meeting such fascinating people from all over the world. The way that the program is designed, you spend a lot of time with your American cohort of 5 to 6 people, but this program was such a diverse group of people. Predominantly, my professional experience had been in the military and although I got to travel all over the world and meet all kinds of fascinating people, most military people are fairly homogenous about how we do things and how we think about things in terms as how we think about the world. But this took me to an environment where I was a minority as a military representative. There were people from all different sectors including artists, venture capitalists, bankers and businessmen. What it really did for me was teach me how to be tolerant in my thinking and how to listen better and how much just acknowledging someone’s opinion can mean. This has really served me really well.
As an Alaska Native, what has been your experience in the Armed Forces?
Culturally, the military is made of an extremely diverse group of people, and while we appreciate people’s ethnic backgrounds we are going to look at them from a standpoint of soldier, sailor, airman. It is less about being unique in the military and more about being a part of the team which is typically why one joins the forces.
How has your career in the Armed Forces shaped you?
I think it has made me appreciate just how great our country is in spite of the some of the challenges that we have. Every time I go to other parts of the world it always makes me appreciate the country that we live in and the opportunities that we have here.
What message do you want to share with the attendees of the 2017 AFN Convention?
First of all, it is a tremendous honor for me to be able to address the convention and one of the things that I will speak to is what a high privilege it is for any person, especially Native people, to be honored by their own people. I want people to walk away from my keynote address with the themes of unity and leadership and the importance of remaining grounded in who we are as people. Sometimes we are going to have to agree to disagree on certain issues but there is power in the unity of our people – we have so much of a stronger voice when we are united.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and it really is this concept of empathy and service that I learned as a little boy. What is significant about this is that at 6 years old you don’t really understand death but there was something that drew me to my grandfather and made me understand that he had a limited amount of time left. I knew that my grandmother was going to need me and that I would have to be empathic and responsible. It was a lesson that I carried from a cultural value into my professional life. When we lose touch with those two things, things start to go awry so I always try to remind myself to stay grounded.