By Kevin Abourezk
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Before the coming of Christian missionaries to Alaska in the 19th century, few of the land’s indigenous peoples practiced Christianity.
But among the Native people of Alaska, some foresaw the power of the church in changing the hearts and minds of the land’s original inhabitants.
One medicine man in particular told his followers the church would pull them from their traditional beliefs and practices, but the holy man also foresaw a day when those customs and beliefs would return.
“Our way of life, our songs, our language, it will all go to sleep for a while,” the medicine man said. “After we are gone, after our grandchildren are gone, it will come back. They’ll just have to awaken it. It will be inside each and every one of them.”
Indeed, the medicine man’s prophecy came to pass as the Christian missionaries succeeded in converting many Alaska Natives and the traditional songs, customs and beliefs of the land’s first peoples began to fade away.
Tristan Madros addresses the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on October 16, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Tristan Madros – a 20-year-old chief of the Koyukon Athabascan people in Kaltag – shared the story Tuesday with participants of the 35th annual First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference
And he offered a prophecy of his own.
“We are breathing life into our culture again,” he said. “I think that’s the greatest thing ever, to see our languages being revitalized, to see our dances coming back, just as that medicine man foretold.”
Madros was the keynote speaker Tuesday, the third day of the Elders and Youth Conference. The conference has drawn nearly 1,200 youth and elders from across Alaska and precedes the Alaska Federation of Natives
convention, which begins Thursday.
Ayyu Qassataq, left, and Liz Medicine Crow of the First Alaskans Institute address the 35th annual Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on October 16, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
The Elders and Youth 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 endangered languages.
On Tuesday, the conference’s participants saw a performance by the Chevak Ayugyuat Dancers, a traditional youth dance troupe from the western coast of Alaska, and watched a bilingual hip-hop video produced by a group of Alaska Native teenagers. The video, “Ixsixan, Ax Kwaan,”
which translates to “I love you, my people,” features lyrics in both English and the Tlingit language sang over a Native drum beat.
“I pick those blueberries. I love my mom. I smoked a fat pound of salmon. Ixsixan, Ax Kwaan,” the chorus goes.
The conference participants also heard a rap song performed by Bishop Slice
, also known as Julian Lillie, an Ahtna Athabascan rapper from Fairbanks who spent six years in prison for stabbing and attempted murder before being freed and turning to music to help himself and his people. Bishop Slice’s rap included lyrics describing the impact of incest in brutally honest terms:
“A young native man, he was only his 20s, with some suicidal thoughts staring at a 30-30, had some dirty things happen at an age that was so early, he was raped by his uncle and he gave the boy herpes.”
Liz Medicine Crow, president and CEO of the First Alaskans Institute
, said Bishop Slice’s rap brought up painful but important truths about the problems facing Alaska Native people.
“Our people don’t hide from the truth, we know what’s going on,” she said. “What we have to do is find a way to use our values to help guide us through these things.”
Later on Tuesday, conference participants learned about Athabascan style beading on moose hide, Kuspuk apron sewing, the use of Native plants as medicine and traditional tattooing. They also got to practice the Inupiaq, Tlingit, Yup’ik and Denaakk’e languages.
In doing so, some might say they helped fulfill a prophecy.
The Chevak Ayugyuat Dancers, a traditional youth dance troupe from the western coast of Alaska, perform at the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage on October 16, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference
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elders and youth gather for annual conference in Alaska
(October 16, 2018)