Most of those looking to be among 26 Tlingit-Haida Central Council delegates from Juneau spoke of the past in their vision for a better future.
"My children can count to 100 in Japanese and Spanish, but they can't count to 10 in Tlingit," said Gloria Sarabia. Like others sponsoring the forum, she said she wants the children to become part of their rich culture as well as their tribal government.
"Our main goal is to get young people involved," said Dana Ruaro, a past delegate from Ketchikan and vice president of Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 70.
Ruaro is among more than 50 candidates running to be delegates from Juneau, and among a group of 19 candidates who have agreed to support each other with a common purpose and hosted Sunday's event.
Ruaro said this is an especially important year because the 119 delegates elected in March will elect a president and six vice presidents at the Tlingit-Haida Central Council's annual meeting in April in Juneau. Delegates will come from other Southeast community, as well as Anchorage and as far south as San Francisco. Juneau has 26 delegates because about 5,000 of the 30,000 Tlingit-Haida tribal members live in Alaska's capital.
At first glance, it seems a diverse group - Tlingit and Haida, Raven and Eagle. "Young and old, man and woman," added Ethel Lund, one of its candidates. "It's the yin and yang of Tlingit-Haida."
When Ruaro addressed the audience at the forum held in the basement of the Salvation Army Sunday afternoon, she talked as much about the people who helped her make something of her life as about why she deserves people's votes.
Cyril George, a past president of the Juneau Tlingit-Haida Community Council, was one of two candidates from the group who said this election will be their last. It has been an honor being a delegate from Juneau, he added. "I'm going to fight for more fast ferries." But what keeps him going is fighting for the spirit of his people, he added, praising the Native song and dance that opened the program.
"As long as there's an Indian, there will be a song," he said. "As long as there's a song, there will be an Indian. That's my prayer."
Candidate Victoria Johnson pointed to things that could be done in the community. "I want to see more of our people in our schools," she said. "I'd like to see our language in our schools.
Candidate Susettna King agreed.
"I want to get the government to pay for Tlingit language in school because it was taken from our people," she said
Brad Fluetsch, Alaska Native Brotherhood grand president, said he sees technology as a way to bring elders and youth together. Cherokees have put their language on I-Pods, and such technology offers great potential in Southeast Alaska.
Fluetsch was one of several candidates who didn't speak in his Native tongue. He said people laugh at him when he tries to speak the ancient tongue, and they laugh at him when he dances. He is troubled by other aspects of Native life, including the high rates of cancer and diabetes and the diet of his people, he said.
Lund said she sees a need for additional opportunities for dialogue between the Central Council and the community.
Several candidates spoke at the forum who were not among the coalition of 19 hosting the event, including Tlingit-Haida Central Council President Ed Thomas.
"I'm one of your dissidents," Thomas said. He also said he agreed with most of what the hosting candidates had to say. "It's been the mentality of our people for ages, working for people in the future."
Ernest Hillman, another candidate not among the coalition of 19, recalled being told of how easy it is to break a pencil. Yet it is to nearly impossible to break a bunch of pencils, he said.
"Tlingit and Haida is one of the strongest groups of people," Hillman said. "Stick together and they will never break you."
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.