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'Sharing Our Knowledge' conference invites public to celebrate Alaska Native cultures

Posted: March 22, 2012 - 12:04am

Next week, an extraordinary four-day gathering in Sitka will bring together Alaska Native tradition bearers, academics, artists, students, and community members to share knowledge and stories of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures. Organizers of the “Sharing Our Knowledge” conference welcome the public to attend the events on March 29-April 1 at Harrigan Centennial Hall in Sitka. This year’s theme is “Haa eetí káa yís,” which means “for those who come after us” in Tlingit.

This year’s conference schedule is packed with more than 40 plenary sessions and seminars about Alaska Native history, indigenous law and protocols, linguistics, archaeology, art and music, museum studies, education, cultural anthropology, fisheries and traditional ecological knowledge. Past conferences have attracted more than 90 presenters and 400 participants from throughout Southeast Alaska as well as throughout the US and Canada.

“This conference is for anyone who is interested in learning,” said conference organizer Peter Metcalfe.

The clan conference began as a vision of the late Andy Hope III. In 1993, the first conference was held in Haines and Klukwan, and continued in later years, rotating to sites in Ketchikan, Saxman, Sitka, and Juneau.

“Andy envisioned bringing together living culture bearers and non-Native people to really have a person-to-person dialogue,” recalled Gerry Hope, conference director. “It is an opportunity for everyone to better understand Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian culture and to help shape the direction for future research.”

Students and teachers from the Juneau and Sitka school districts and Mt. Edgecumbe high school along with students and faculty from the University of Alaska Southeast will be in attendance. The conference is funded in part by grants from The Alaska Humanities Foundation and the Association of Alaska School Boards. As in year’s past, the sessions will be followed each day by cultural events and a banquet in the evening.

A much-anticipated highlight this year includes a gathering place for clan leaders and representatives from Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian clans from all over Southeast Alaska and inland Tlingit country.

“It is important that this conference includes people who know the history first-hand,” said Ray Wilson, a Kiks.ádi clan leader who will be traveling to Sitka to take part in the welcome ceremony and the clan leader workshops.

In recognition of the 100-year anniversary celebrating the founding of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, this year’s conference will feature special presentations about the history of ANB and the Alaska Native Sisterhood in working for Alaska Native civil rights and land claims.

“The conference theme ‘for those who come after us’ acknowledges the long-term vision that the elders of ANB and ANS had for future generations,” explained Gerry Hope. “They set the example for us to think about how what we’re doing will impact things after we pass and those who are not yet born.”

Another conference feature blends traditional culture with cutting edge technology.

“Courtesy of the Alaska Department of Education, the entire conference will be recorded and available for viewing on the clan conference website,” said Metcalfe. “The Smithsonian Institution will also demonstrate 3-D scanning technology that creates digital historical records of artifacts and precious objects such as clan ‘at.óow,’” The term “at.óow” refers to “owned things” that hold significant historical and cultural value to the Tlingit people.

One of the many topics to be presented includes Tlingit language and Alaska Native education. Tlingit language teacher Mary Folletti will present a Tlingit language workshop this year with her colleagues at the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.

“We will share our teaching methods and the audience will get to participate in the activities that we do with the kids,” she said. The team of elders, tradition bearers, and teachers has spent the past few years developing and delivering innovative Tlingit language curriculum to schools throughout Southeast Alaska.

For Alaska Native attendees, the clan conference is an opportunity to connect to their history and their culture.

“People can find out about their clan history and where they came from. They learn about themselves and their ancestors,” said conference organizer and Tlingit language teacher Marsha Hotch.

Originally from Klukwan, Hotch grew up hearing Tlingit spoken at home. She now teaches Tlingit language in community settings, elementary and secondary schools, and at the university level. Her radio show “Tlingit Time” features 5-minute segments of Tlingit language lessons at the public radio station in Haines, KHNS. In preparation for clan conference, language learners can access archives of her radio show at www.KHNS.org

“Traditionally, knowledge was shared through stories, but now knowledge is also shared in other ways,” observed Hotch, who has been involved with the conferences since the first one in 1993.

The conference unites people from diverse backgrounds and expertise to work together to ensure that Alaska Native cultural knowledge in its many forms are passed on from one generation to the next through stories, songs, writing and digital media.

“The conference is a good place to learn and encourage each other,” said Hotch. “It is a time and place for people to listen and respect each other’s knowledge.”

For details about the 2012 conference and registration information, visit http://ankn.uaf.edu/ClanConference2/course/view.php?id=4

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau. Contact her at jennu.jnu@gmail.com.

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