By Melinda Munson

After two years of disappointments, the North Words Writers Symposium is set to meet in person May 25-28.

“I’m still knocking on wood and keeping my fingers crossed,” said Jeff Brady, symposium co-founder.

Skagway’s premier writer’s event, known for its small size, breathtaking surroundings and eclectic presenters, went to Zoom format in 2020 due to COVID-19. The following year, the symposium was postponed to the fall, then canceled when the delta variant surged.

With a large portion of the population vaccinated and boosted, the organizing faculty is hopeful for a return to normalcy.

The symposium boasts a big name – keynote speaker Tommy Orange.

Orange’s 2018 debut novel, “There, There,” was one of The New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of the Year, won The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the PEN/Hemingway Award, along with being a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.

Orange, born and raised in Oakland, California, is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. 

“There, There” tells the story of urban Native Americans. The Guardian describes it as both “angry and demanding” and “moving and powerful.”

Orange will be on the panel that discusses “Jack London’s long shadow: Disputing and transforming the legacy of racism in American literature.”

Nearly 125 years after the gold rush, Brady says it’s time to talk about the north’s most famous and controversial writer. He thinks it’s appropriate that the person leading the discussion is an American Native from London’s hometown.

“We want to talk about how to get beyond the gold rush and tell the true stories about what happened, that aren’t going to be as glorified as the gold rush … and then talk about how writing can take us beyond that in both fiction and non-fiction and poetry as well,” Brady told Dave White of CBC.

Joining Orange will be Juneau’s Lance Twitchell, professor, author and linguist. With roots in Skagway, Twitchell was instrumental in the formation of the Skagway Traditional Council, a federally recognized tribal government representing the indiginous people of Skagway Village. Twitchell joined the North Words faculty last fall.

“We were excited to bring him on,” Brady said. “He’s a wonderful communicator. He keeps us on track and where we should be.”

Twitchell, who is Tlingit, Haida, Yup’ik and Sami, added a dedication to the top of the North Words web page. It reads:

“We are going to gather on the ancestral land of the Lḵoot peoples. From so very long ago they have been on these lands. Now they are here, and they will always be here. On this land, their stories are sounding off. Through the voices of the earth, rivers, and the Tree People sing the songs of the Lḵoot peoples. How much we want that you give respect to all things.”

Also on the North Words 2022 roster is Alaska Writer Laureate Heather Lende, Native Alaskan Laureli Ivanoff, writer of young adult fiction and essays centering on Native life, and environmental science writer M Jackson. For the full list of faculty visit

Approximately 22 symposium spots have been reserved. The event maxes out at 40. Attendees are required to be vaccinated with religious and medical exemptions. Masking will be required at most indoor venues. 

Two events are open to the public: a poetry open mic slam at Olivia’s Historic Skagway Inn, May 24, 6-8 p.m. and faculty readings at Eagles Hall with an introduction by Soapy Smith, May 26, 7-8:30 p.m.

North Words is presented as a symposium versus a conference because emphasis is placed on interaction and conversation between the presenters and the attendees.

“I think we’re going to have a great discussion,” Brady said.