A conversation about conversations

FAI's Liz Medicine Crow, of Kake, sits down with the Empire
Liz Medicine Crow, President/CEO of the First Alaskans Institute, at the 2013 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.

Liz Medicine Crow is the President/CEO of the First Alaskans Institute, which organizes and hosts the yearly Elders and Youth conference in conjunction with the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Medicine Crow, formerly Cheney, is Tlingit and Haida from Kake. 


Medicine Crow and the staff at the institute made some changes to this year’s conference that were evident in the kinds of conversations that took place. Elders and youth talked about everything from personal life experiences to legislation relevant to them, such as House Bill 77, a bill that would affect tribes and citizens’ stream rights.

Medicine Crow sat down with the Juneau Empire on Wednesday to discuss her thoughts on this year’s conference.


What were some of the big successes at this year’s conference?

I think one of the things I loved the best was the amount of real connection and engagement between the elders and the youth. We tried some new things and the reports we’ve been hearing back are that they worked. They weren’t flawless, but we’re not flawless. They were able to get to the kind of conversations they needed and that was our intent, to create an opportunity for our young people and our elders to come together to share their voice and story, their knowledge and hopefully inspire one another, challenge one another and encourage one another. Not just on the light, fluffy stuff, but also on the really important issues that affect our life every day. 

Also empowering them and affirming their world view and, hopefully, also spreading it as a practice. We say it’s a collective voice, we don’t just say that it’s actually the action of how the whole conference is created. Many people make light work and there were lots of hands, minds, hearts involved in ... coming up with the ideas of what should be done, in selecting the workshops. And there was incredible turnout. 


Why is forming a connection between elders and youth important? What does it do?

In the western context, in the western framework of knowledge development, there’s a lot of education in schools, colleges, books and you get to delve in with your individual spirit in mind about the world, about yourself, about your place in the world. Well, the way that we do that in the Native community, and how we do it at the conference, is to bring people together and experience that knowledge, to grow that knowledge and to build it. It’s also a place to develop a sense of self, connection to place and voice, agency, control over your decisions, over your community, using different processes to build consensus, to talk about different issues in a fun, warm atmosphere. 


This year’s conference seemed to be very different from previous conferences. Was that a conscious choice, or did it just happen that way?

It’s really intentional. It’s not intentional because there are problems with the conferences in years past. It’s intentional because the years past have been so amazing, it’s a building of a movement forward. We’re pushing each year to expand the use of our ancestral tools, to create space within the western framework of a conference space. We’re trying to create and make a way for our elders and youth to have the deep conversations that they need to have and we’re bending the framework around us. We’re indigenizing our conference and every year it’s a challenge, a wonderful, wonderful challenge to do that. It’s not about the First Alaskans Institute, it’s not about the staff. It’s about what we can do in two-and-a-half days that will rejuvenate, will nourish, that will inspire and hopefully challenge people to think about different things. 


What kind of discussions happen at the conference about legislation and laws?

They actually had a dialogue about HB 77. You know, they’re talking about domestic violence, sexual abuse and they’re talking about policy. They’re not just sharing stories, they got right down into the “how do we change it?” And they’re taking that all back to their communities. A lot of the elders that come are tribal council members, they’re corporate board members, they’re village corporation board members, they’re city council members, they’re on the school board. The adults that chaperone the kids, they’re usually the doers in the community, you know, they’re already engaged in doing stuff. What comes out of it rests on the shoulders of the people who attend, and I think that’s one of the key pieces, in that this is really about them. 

The voting activity that we did this time around, I think that’s just the first of that concept. It was pretty awesome, from what I’ve heard, for the people who got to experience it. We had a 50 percent voter outcome and today when we were reporting the results, people were (surprised). We talked about the wording issues that people stumbled over. It was intentional because that’s how the ballots read. When we reported on it, we talked about the power of a question. The one that was ballot measure 2 was “Should the clause in ANCSA that extinguishes aboriginal hunting and fishing rights be stricken?” And a lot of people, almost half, said yes, it should be stricken. Half said no. The half that said no, were answering yes. They were interpreting the question the same way, but just the opposite of what was written. We talked about how the question was written and if it were written differently, we asked if they would have changed their response and they said yes. The question and the process was about understanding the voter. I shared my experience, I have a law degree and I have to re-read those ballot initiatives a lot to make sure that I’m giving the answer that I want to give. 

We want to build these as habits for our kids. We also want our older folks, our adults and our elders, to feel empowered to do the same things and get the people in their communities to think about these things differently. We strengthen our voice when we vote, even if we vote differently from each other. 

AFN 2013


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