FAIRBANKS — Several hundred Alaska Native teenagers and elders gathered Monday at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks for the 30th annual Elders and Youth conference.
Among the conference’s goals is to encourage young and old to engage together in conversation, and for the young to absorb the wisdom of their elders.
Some of the teens were outgoing and engaged, while others, whose faces were lit by the glow of a smartphone, appeared distant or bored.
“They may not register a reaction or show that they are paying attention, but we know that they are,” said Liz Medicine Crow, President and CEO of First Alaskans Institute.
The conference is organized by the institute and is held in conjunction with the Alaska Federation of Natives convention that begins Thursday.
The Elders and Youth conference opened with a blessing from Athabascan spiritual leader Rev. Anna Frank. Delegates then heard remarks from Medicine Crow, the ubiquitous Willie Hensley and gubernatorial candidate Byron Mallott.
“Those who have been on the journey longest can look behind, examine their own path and say there were good steps and there were not-so-good steps,” Mallott said. “But each step allows us to learn, each step allows us to contribute, each step allows us to be better, allows us to embrace all those who are on the journey with us.”
There were plenty of inspiring words to go around, but it was a session called “Making Connections: Elder and Youth Interviews” that required the undivided attention of all the conference’s delegates.
During one segment of the conference, teens and elders were paired together, and the youth were able to interview the elder on any topic of their choosing. Howard Luke of Nenana has been to every single Elders and Youth conference since its inception 30 years ago. During the interview portion, he paired with two teenaged girls from Holy Cross. For the girls it was their first time at the conference.
“What I’m telling them now is to be careful what they say,” Luke explained, while being interviewed by the girls. “If somebody is talking, don’t talk until you hear what they’re saying. It’s what they give you your ears for.”
When asked what the girls thought of Luke’s imparted wisdom, they were too shy to give a reply. But as Luke continued talking, they continued to listen.
“Things are changing,” Luke tells them. “Our game, our moose, our fishing is disappearing because we mistreat them. We need to be careful.”
The conference is an experience that the institute’s Medicine Crow said helps youth find confidence in their culture.
“It affirms their identity right now,” Medicine Crow said. “When they ever get to a place in their life when they’re questioning, they can come back to this time. They can always be connected no matter what is happening in their life.”
Medicine Crow said the point of the interview session is to teach the youth that they are not alone, even if they’re not in their home village.
“So that they feel a sense of responsibility and strength in who they are,” Medicine Crow said. “It’s so inspiring to learn and watch them and know that there is still greatness to come from their life.”
Celtics’ Bell-Holter Skypes in
The Boston Celtics’ Damen Bell-Holter, a Haida member from Hydaburg, joined the conference via Skype. Bell-Holter, who attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, told youth delegates to work hard and follow their dreams, but to not be fixated on one thing.
“If the basketball were to stop dribbling tomorrow, well, I don’t want to be known as just a good basketball player,” Bell-Holter said. “I want to be known as a good person, a good brother, a good father, a good uncle, everything. I want to do good in all aspects of life and I want all of you kids to realize that it’s not all about basketball and don’t base your identity off basketball.”
Bell-Holter invited the youth to contact him via Facebook or Twitter if they wanted him to come to their town or village to host a basketball camp.
Vote and ‘run the state’
Daisy Stevens of Fort Yukon talked to conference delegates about the importance of voting. She told a story about her mother, who she said is featured in a 1958 picture of three Alaska Native women voting. The picture became famous, she said, just as Alaska was preparing to become a state. Stevens said her mother was filling out a ballot to vote in her regional corporation’s election shortly before she died.
“She filled her ballot out and it was in the mail,” Stevens said. “Three hours later she passed away. My mother taught me how important it is to vote.”
Stevens said Alaska Natives could “run the state” if all voted.
“Let us idle no more and continue to follow the footsteps of our ancestors by voting,” Stevens said. “Many of you wear Native pride shirts and hats. Let us show our pride by choosing to vote.”
Anchorage students attend via video conference
More than 200 students who are part of the Indian Education program with the Anchorage School District gathered at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage to participate in the gathering via video conferencing.
Demystifying voting process
A new activity at this year’s conference stages a chance for youth to become familiar with the voting process and for some of the elders to reconnect with it, said Medicine Crow. The institute created a ballot with four questions. Elders and youth were able to cast their votes in an actual voting booth. Medicine Crow said the activity was intended to “demystify the voting process.”
“It’s an opportunity for learning the process and it’s also an opportunity to empower them and help them understand the power of their voice,” Medicine Crow said. “It helps them understand the process and gets them involved at a very young age so they can feel empowered once they turn 18, so that it’s not a mystery to them, that the process isn’t intimidating, that they know exactly what they need to do and they’re comfortable with that. For our adults that are participating, it’s giving them an opportunity to reconnect with that and, most importantly, we want to give them talking points so they can go back to their communities and talk about why it’s important for people to register and participate in the voting process.”