Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Speaking on the strengths of Alaska Natives

'You are beautiful. You are strong': Elders and youth wrap up conference

Final day of First Alaskans Institute focuses on gender equity and respect
By Kevin Abourezk

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The eight boys, men and elders sat in a circle and talked with each other about how they could help their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters.

They talked about hunting seals, fishing for salmon and keeping the fires within their homes burning. And they talked about respect and gratitude. A middle-age Native man leading the conversation asked the five boys in the circle how they could show respect and gratitude for their moms.

Give her a massage, one boy answered. Saying thank you, another responded.

Two older men in the group urged the young boys to always be willing to take on tasks that traditionally would have been assigned to the women, such as washing clothes or cleaning the house or washing the dishes.

The boys didn’t respond.

Charlene Apok, an Inupiaq woman, speaks about the strengths of Alaska Native men as Damen Bell-Holter, left, and an elder listen during the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference on October 17, 2018, in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The conversation, one of dozens held Wednesday in a large conference room in downtown Anchorage, was part of a larger conversation about gender equity and respect hosted by the First Alaskans Institute as part of its 35th annual First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference.

As the four-day gathering of nearly 1,200 Alaska Native youth and elders wrapped up here on Wednesday, those who participated discussed ways to ease divisions among men, women and two-spirit people. They also approved eight resolutions they hope will improve the lives of Alaska Natives.

Those resolutions included: a call to the state of Alaska to require its schools to incorporate lessons on Alaska Native history into their studies; a resolution in opposition to the use of electronic cigarettes; a resolution supporting a proposed $175 million new campus for Ilisagvik College in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska; and a call to allow Native people to wear their traditional regalia during graduation ceremonies.

The conference closed with group discussions within “men’s houses,” “women’s houses” and “two spirit and LGBTQA+ houses.” But before they began their group discussions, a man, woman and elder spoke to the conference participants about the need to respect one another.

A Native youth group from Dillingham is joined in a dance by participants of the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on October 17, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Charlene Apok, a young Inupiaq woman, spoke about the strengths of Alaska Native men.

She said the first strength she witnessed this week during the conference was the fact that so many Native boys and men took part.

“You showed up,” she said. “You’re being accountable.”

She said the role of Native men in Alaska is changing. Where once the role of Native men was to hunt and fish, today the role of men has become more complex.

“I see young Alaska Native men going to school,” she said. “I see young Alaska Native men working those jobs to provide for their families in a different way. I see Alaska Native men being providers through fatherhood.”

An older woman spoke about the need to respect LGBTQA+ people.

She said she grew up with two spirit people and learned at a young age that they are also human beings worthy of love.

“We as Natives, Natives everywhere, we in our history have accepted the two spirit people as they are called now,” she said.

And she urged those gathered at the conference to forgive those who show hate toward LGBTQA+ people.

Damen Bell-Holter, a Haida and Tlingit man, spoke in a dialect of the Haida language and had the audience repeat one phrase with him several times, getting louder and louder each time.

The phrase translates to “today our women are strong.”

He thanked his mother for teaching him his Native language and said learning his language and customs was the best way he could show respect for Alaska Native women.

“You are beautiful. You are strong. You are powerful. You are the vision our ancestors had.”

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

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