Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: 35th Annual First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference

Native elders and youth gather for annual conference in Alaska

By Kevin Abourezk

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Wesley Ugiaqtaq Aiken grew up in one of the coldest, harshest places in the world, nearly 300 miles north of the Arctic circle.

In Barrow (today known as Utqiagvik), Alaska, Aiken learned to hunt seals and whales. He eventually became a whaling captain himself and once caught three whales in one week.

Later, he joined the Alaska Territorial Guard and the Alaska National Guard before joining the fight for Inupiat land claims in the 1970s during the movement to pass the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

Before an audience of nearly 1,200 sleepy-eyed Native youth and elders in a conference room overlooking Anchorage on Monday morning, Aiken shared the lessons of his 92 years spent living off the land and fighting for Alaska Native rights.

“I’m going to tell you about respect,” he said. “Our ancestors were strong.”

Members of the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School Choir sing the National Anthem in Yup'ik on October 15, 2018, during the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference being held this week in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The Inupiaq people didn’t have rifles to hunt, snowmobiles, electricity or even matches, he said. They had to work hard to survive off the land and they learned at a young age to hunt, fish and trap, Aiken said.

“They taught us respect for animals and land,” he said. “Take care of it and it will take care of you.”

He implored the youth to talk to their elders, to ask them to teach them their Native languages and to hunt.

“Ask your elders when it’s the time best time to hunt,” Aiken said. “Ask them that. They’ll tell you.”

Wesley Ugiaqtaq Aiken (right) speaks on October 15, 2018, to participants of the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference being held this week in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The 35th annual First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference, which began Sunday and precedes the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, continued Monday with presentations by tribal leaders, Native advocates and state leaders, including Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, a Tlingit tribal citizen.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Our Ancestors, Our Fire” and focuses on those aspects of Alaska Native culture and history that keep tribal people connected to their ancestors and their homelands. The conference brings together Alaska Native youth and elders from across the state to learn from each other and identify solutions for challenges facing Alaska Native people, such as their dying languages.

The youth and elders listened to tribal advocates and state leaders talk about the paths they took to become successful and about the importance of Native people finding their voice within local and state politics. On Monday afternoon, they got to take participate in several hands-on learning workshops where they learned to filet fish, create fishing lines, speak Native words, sew and bead, and start fires using only sticks.

“We’re building community,” said Andrea Sanders, Alaska Native Policy Center director for the First Alaskans Institute. “That’s what this is about.”

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott (left) and Gov. Bill Walker address the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on October 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Gov. Walker shared the story of listening to Chris Apassingok speak at the Elders and Youth Conference last year, not long after the Native teenager had endured criticism from animal-rights advocates from around the world after catching a massive bowhead whale.

Walker said he and Mallot sat on both sides of Apassingok during his speech. And on Sunday, Walker joined Apassingok at a meeting of the Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council.

“To have Chris from Gambell sitting on GTAC, giving advice and talking about tribal issues was a moment for me,” he said.

Walker also spoke about his efforts to preserve Alaska Native languages and his decision in September to issue Administrative Order 300, which seeks to revitalize those languages by integrating them into public schools and universities. The order establishes a Native liaison within each state department tasked with overseeing efforts to improve relationships between state officials and tribes.

The order will also update public signs to include bilingual signage that recognizes indigenous place names. It followed a report published earlier this year by the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council that showed the state’s 20 Native languages were in immediate jeopardy of becoming extinct.

“We certainly were happy to do that, but we want to do more,” Walker said.

He talked about attending the funeral of a 10-year-old Alaska Native girl who was found beaten and murdered last month near the northwestern community of Kotzebue. As he listened to people speak about Ashley Johnson-Barr, he thought about what he could have done to prevent the tragedy.

“I celebrate all the great things that happen in Alaska while I’m governor, but I take full responsibility for everything bad that happens in Alaska while I’m governor,” he said, his voice quivering.

And he spoke about visiting the village of Gnome not long after taking the oath of office in December 2014 and seeing the town’s high school basketball players shake hands with elders from the village before the game started.

“Showing respect is so incredible, and that is what this whole conference is about is showing respect, showing respect from the youth to the elders and the elders to the youth,” Walker said.

Artist Joel Isaak teaches participants of the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference how to create fire using sticks on Octobr 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Other presenters on Monday encouraged the youth to pursue their dreams and find their voices, whether it be in politics or government and military employment.

Lawrence Gust, a young Yup’ik man, talked about his decision to join the Alaska Army National Guard, something he never thought he would be able to do.

“Whatever dreams that you guys have you can always chase them and achieve them,” he said.

Barbara Blake of Haida, Tlingit and Ahtna Athabascan descent, who is director of Native and Rural Affairs for the Governor’s Office, said she’s often struggled to make her voice heard in rooms where she is often the only Native person. But she said it’s important for Native people to be in such rooms.

By simply being present and visible in such places, Native people help ensure decisions aren’t made that harm Native people.

“They’re not going to make that same decision because we are in the room staring at them,” she said.

Alex Cleghorn (right), Alaska assistant attorney general, speaks to the participants of the First Alaskans Institute's Elders and Youth Conference being held this week in Anchorage. Barbara Blake (left), director of Native and Rural Affairs for Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, and Julianna Clock, policy and program analyst for Walker, are seated next to him. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Alex Cleghorn, a Sugpiaq tribal member and Alaska assistant attorney general, spoke about his family’s struggles with alcoholism and constant relocation. He said he never felt like he fit in at law school, where most students came from wealthy families and had parents who were often doctors or lawyers.

“When I finally got to law school, I felt quite out of place,” he said. “It was a little disorienting for me.”

But he said he found strength in remembering his grandmother, who was born in Kodiak before Alaska was a state and left home to pursue her education before returning as a single mother. Like her grandson, she eventually went to work for the state of Alaska.

“This taught me the value of education and perseverance,” Cleghorn said.

He said serving as an attorney who doesn’t look Native sometimes leads to situations where people say insensitive things about Natives in his presence. He said he has learned how to correct such people by explaining his own Native background and experience.

“Be proud of who you are, who are our ancestors were and don’t be afraid to say who you are,” he told the Native youth on Monday.

The First Alaskans Institute opened its 35th annual Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on October 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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