Elders & Youth focused on language for virtual convention

  • Dustin Unignax Newman (Unangax/Deg Hit’an) lives in Anchorage and has family roots in the communities of King Cove and Anvik. He will serve as a “conference guide” for the upcoming virtual Elders & Youth Conference. (Photo/Courtesy/The Aleut Corp. and Yuit Communications)

In the days preceding the annual Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage, the First Alaskans Institute brings together teenagers, elders, and everyone in between for the Elders and Youth Conference.

But like so many things this year, the usual attendees will have to be together while apart. The First Alaskans Institute is preparing for its first entirely virtual Elders and Youth Conference, set to begin on Oct. 11.

The event will be livestreamed on firstalaskans.org as well as broadcast statewide on GCI’s channels 1 and 907, on 360 North, and ARCS. FAI isn’t providing any broad support to elders who may need help with technology to go online and participate, but may do so on a case-by-case basis, said Karla Gatgyedm Hana’ax Booth, the Indigenous Leadership Continuum Director for FAI. Throughout the conference, they’re also encouraging people to get up and move around, as they’ll be in front of a screen this year.

The 37th annual conference will also be entirely free. Usually, attendees are required to register, but with the combination of online and broadcast elements this year, the institute decided to make the event free. Booth said the sponsors helped make that possible this year.

“I feel like it wasn’t that hard to reimagine, because we just knew that we had to have this very important statewide event,” she said. “It had to happen, no matter what. We wanted to make sure we were being good relatives to our statewide community and provide something that could lift all of our spirits up in this time of COVID. I don’t think we ever had a doubt that we would host something, but I think the real challenge was figuring out what the format is going to be.”

First Alaskans Institute announced the plan to go entirely virtual with the conference and the annual Smokehouse Gala back in July. Since then, the organizers have been reworking plans for how to take the events virtual, which will enable vulnerable people to stay home and prevent the spread of disease from a major event back to dispersed communities. The conference usually takes place in Anchorage, which is also the single largest city in the state and the center of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic.

The Elders and Youth Conference always starts with an opening ceremony called the Warming of the Hands, and that won’t change, Booth said. Sunday Oct. 11 will run from 1-5 p.m., and the following days from Oct. 12-14 will run from 8:30-5 p.m. Oct. 12 also happens to be Indigenous Peoples Day, and the events of the conference will line up with that, including language workshops.

“(On Monday) we’re going to have our ‘Living and Loving Our Cultures’ workshops, focused on language learning,” she said. “(We’ll be) adding extra time to that session as well, just to celebrate our languages even more, to allow people to really get into learning and practicing, and hopefully they’ll continue that learning after the conference, too.”

Some things will look a little different. The Elder Keynote speaker — Dr. Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village — will pre-record his message and make it available on Monday Oct. 12, Booth said. Gilbert is a tribal leader, Episcopal priest, Native knowledge and culture bearer and Gwich’in teacher, among other roles. The youth keynote speaker, Kiley Kanats Burton of Cordova, will follow suit on Tuesday Oct. 13. Instead of the regular dance group performances, First Alaskans Institute will air a compilation of the best Chin’an dance group performances over the past decade on Oct. 12 at 6 p.m., Booth said.

Each day will begin with optional dawn prayers and well-wishes, which were requested by a community member last year and will continue this year. Workshops will pack the day, as they usually do, including listening circles, regional gatherings, and crafting workshops. For those who pre-registered before Sept. 24, the FAI staff have been mailing out some arts kits, Booth said. There are about 14 workshops to choose from, seven of which require kits.

“(Some workshops are) cottonwood carving, cedar basket weaving, canvas rifle case sewing, salmon skin pouch sewing and embroidery, cedar bracelet making, acrylic painting, and COVID-19 mask sewing,” she said. “Some of our workshops that don’t require any kits.”

The theme for this year’s conference is “Asirqamek Aprucilutna” in Sugt’sun or “Asisqamek Aprut’liluta” in Alutiiq, both of which mean “We are making a good path.” Language preservation continues to be one of the major goals in the conference, Booth said, the Alaska Native Preservation and Advisory Council appointed by the governor will hold a listening sessions during the conference as well. One of the events many people look forward to are the men’s, women’s, and LGBTQIA+ houses, she said.

“They get to share their truth, they get to listen to other people’s truth,” she said. “I think for a lot of people, it adds to their healing journey.”

“Part of our job is to host these dialogues,” she said. “We wanted them to be as engaging as we could make them in these virtual settings. You don’t have the same tools… we adapt, and we use what’s available to us. Just the physical experience of our participants being in a virtual meeting, it takes a toll physically on people. We know the importance of encouraging people to get up and take care of themselves. We will try to introduce things that are physical.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
10/07/2020 - 8:59am