The Alaska Federation of Natives was formed in October 1966. The first gathering was a three-day meeting of 400 people representing 17 Native organizations.
“We had the AFN Convention in the fall of '66, and we thought it was going to be a small group of us initially,” Willie I??ia?ruk Hensley recalled in an oral history. Hensley, an Inupiaq originally from Kotzebue, is now an author and professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was a young leader at the formation of AFN. “When we got together in October of 1966, it was really the first time we got together on a statewide basis.”
No one thinks of AFN as a small group these days. The annual convention attracts some 5,000 people from across the state (and the country.) Hotels are full, shops are packed, and Alaska Natives are a visible force. AFN says the convention is the “largest representative annual gathering in the United States of any Native peoples.”
It may also be the world’s largest voting booth. People attending AFN have only to walk across the street from the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center to the Anchorage City Hall where conference attendees can pick up a ballot from any location in the state.
Imagine that. Some five thousand Alaska Natives inspired to vote — and then given the opportunity to do so immediately.
And the inspiration is coming on strong. The week in Anchorage begins with the First Alaskan Institute’s Elders and Youth Conference, some 1,200 Alaska Natives, sharing stories, dance, song, and serious conversations about suicide, language preservation, and, of course, voting.
Many of those attending the youth conference are too young to vote. No matter. A call went out Monday to text your aunties, your uncles, parents, or grandparents and tell them to vote. Early.
A new video, “Get Out The Native Vote,” was also given a “premiere” at the Youth and Elders Conference, a hip message about why Alaska Natives should vote. The video (that’s easily shared) gives reasons to vote such as Native hunting and fishing substance rights, and then urging folks to cast their ballot early. In addition to Anchorage, there are 127 early voting sites. My favorite line in the video however is “I am turning out to vote because I want to take a selfie in the voting booth.”
Richard Perry, Yup’ik and Athabascan, wrote in the new edition of First Alaskans: “If ever there was a need for Alaska Native people to vote it would be now.” He said the politics of Alaska Native people cannot be “easily described collectively,” yet there is common ground on such issues as fishing, village safety and school graduation rates.
As Perry pointed out, the Alaska legislature is 90 percent white but only represents 67.5 percent of the population. Natives are about 20 percent of the population — and growing faster because the population is younger. Yet the state of Alaska is often hostile to Alaska Native issues ranging from subsistence to its opposition to the expansion of tribal governments.
On Friday afternoon candidates for the U.S. Senate, Governor and Lt. Governor will be at the AFN convention for a forum on Native issues.
The message about voting could not be stronger or clearer. Vote. And vote early. All it takes is a walk across the street into the world’s largest voting booth.
Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.