Native rights pioneer, next generation take Elders & Youth stage
The two speakers at the 35th First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference bring two different geographic perspectives, two different eras and two different cultures, but a similar energy to be active on behalf of their ancestral communities.
The First Alaskans Institute, which organizes the annual Elders and Youth Convention that precedes the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage, has chosen Inupiaq elder Ugiqtaq Wesley Aiken as the Elder keynote and Kaltag resident Tristan Yaadoh Jovan Madros as its Youth keynote speaker. Aiken is scheduled to speak at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 15, and Madros is scheduled to speak at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, according to a draft schedule.
The conference’s theme is “Our Ancestors, Our Fire,” acknowledging the connection to ancestors and elders among Natives today and exploring the question: “What will we add to this fire to keep it burning brightly?”
A leader from Utqiagvik
Aiken is a longtime hand in Alaska and Native politics since long before statehood in 1959.
Born in the North Slope town of Barrow, now called Utqiagvik, in 1926, Aiken herded reindeer in the area to provide for his family as a teenager before serving in the Alaska Territorial Guard from 1944–59, staying involved with the guard until 1973, according to a press release from the First Alaskans Institute.
Aiken took up the banner of Native rights in the 1960s, participating in the civil disobedience movement in Barrow against federal restrictions on spring duck hunting that was later dubbed “the Barrow Duck-in” in 1961, when Inupiaq duck hunters presented signed statements of their duck hunting against federal rules en masse to game wardens.
From there, he was heavily involved in the work to pass the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973. He worked on the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the North Slope Borough and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., retiring from the latter in 1992.
He was among the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp.’s first three employees upon its formation in 1973, holding the role of land chief, according to the corporation’s website.
Throughout his life, he’s held onto a strong faith. He’s frequently invited to deliver prayers in Utqiagvik, whether over captured whales or community gatherings, said his daughter Martha Stackhouse. People often approach him to offer the latest news in town, such as which whales are going by or to ask for advice, she said.
“Almost all the time he’s asked to pray for different entities, different things that are happening … they often ask for advice on what to do when a certain situation and the first answer is always that you will find the answer in prayer,” she said.
Aiken identified his work on ANCSA and on a commercial whaling moratorium as his most important steps in Native politics, Stackhouse said. Both were hinged around subsistence rights — Aiken says that preserving access to traditional hunting and gathering foods is critically important to the isolated communities of the North Slope.
Looking to the future, Aiken says erosion is one of the biggest issues facing Arctic communities. The community east of Utqiagvik that he grew up in, Isuk, has lost between two and four miles of coastline to erosion in recent years, Stackhouse said. Utqiagvik itself has lost a large amount of coastline, largely due to melting permafrost and warming temperatures.
Looking to the theme of “Our Ancestors, Our Fire,” he said he looked to his ancestors for foresight and instruction in the past.
“Those ancestors as he was growing up, as he was very young, those people use to talk about the things that were going to happen,” Stackhouse said. “They are happening. So the ancestors predicted this and they are happening.”
Learning from elders
Tristan Madros grew up spending time and learning from elders in Kaltag.
Madros, who was adopted traditionally by his grandparents in the western Alaska village, is of Koyukon Athabascan descent. He learned the traditional way of life there, making birch sleds, hunting, trapping and fishing.
At 20, he has already spent several terms on the board of Denakkanaaga, an organization representing Native elders in the Doyon and Tanana Chiefs Conference areas of the Interior and currently serves on the Kaltag Village Council as the Second Chief, in the Kaltag dance group, the Tanana Chiefs Conference Youth Advisory Emerging Leader’s Council, and Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission board, according to a press release from the First Alaskans Institute.
In 2017, Doyon Ltd. named him as the Shareholder of the Year for the Chief Andrew Isaac Leadership Award. In a release accompanying the award, the corporation noted Madros’ work with elders and efforts to give back to the community.
The 35th Elders and Youth Conference is scheduled to begin with the Warming of the Hands pre-conference session on Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, and the Tyonek peoples will host a welcome potlatch at the Alaska Pacific University sports center.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].