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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today 

History cast a shadow over the 37th annual Elders and Youth Conference hosted by the First Alaskans Institute this week. The event normally draws hundreds of Alaska Native elders and youth aged 13 to 18 from across the state into Anchorage or Fairbanks. This year it was held virtually.

“Our peoples know the continuing devastation and trauma of colonization, attempted genocide and the diseases and pandemics that have also come to our shores. And no matter what, we survive because we know what matters most,” said an institute news release.

And what matters most now is finding ways to get through the pandemic. This year’s theme was fitting: “Asirqamek apruciluta (in Sugt’stun), asisqamek aprut’liluta (in Alutiiq)” — a phrase that when translated into English means, “We are making a good path.”

The theme “exemplifies our ancestral responsibilities to protect our peoples and communities, including through this time of COVID-19,” the institute said.

“From the beginning of this current pandemic, our elders have informed the critical decision-making of tribes, communities, families and individuals by sharing the brilliance of our peoples’ ways of persevering and thriving throughout history.”

A ceremony from a previous year's Elders and Youth Conference. This year, it was held virtually.  (Photo courtesy of the First Alaskans Institute) 

A ceremony from a previous year's Elders and Youth Conference. This year, it was held virtually.  (Photo courtesy of the First Alaskans Institute) 

The occasion brings people together from all corners of the state to share knowledge and cultural practices, and to discuss community issues. It’s meant to develop the leadership of Native youth, guided by elders’ wisdom.

The institute is a nonprofit organization focused on the advancement of Alaska Natives. Since 2004, it’s held the conference the same week and in the same facilities as the state’s largest gathering: the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, which draws as many as 6,000 people.

On Sunday, Indigenous healers and elders kicked off the conference with blessings and prayers. Over four days, various workshops and virtual performances covered everything from traditional art to professional networking. Alaska Native artists and organizations also could submit videos of their artwork and services at a virtual Community Hall.

The conference’s elder keynote speaker was Dr. Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert, Gwich’in Athabascan. The youth keynote speaker was 15-year-old Kiley Kanat’s Burton, who is Eyak, Aleut, Iñupiaq, and Koyukon Athabascan.

In a speech over Zoom, Gilbert described his love for traditional Native food, and discussed the importance of practicing Native traditions and speaking Indigenous languages. While he emphasized the need for future generations to stay in touch with their traditions, he also acknowledged recent challenges that could make those pursuits more difficult.

“We are very lucky to have all the resources we have in Alaska, but this summer there’s no fish in the Yukon,” Gilbert said. “Slowly, we get into a lot of change. I know it, since the last maybe two years.”

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Burton’s speech addressed a different potential obstacle for future Indigenous generations: blood quantum standards.

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Burton grew up practicing Alaska Native traditions with her family, such as sewing seal skin and beading. However, under state law, certain marine mammals can be harvested only by people who are at least one-quarter Alaska Native. This excludes people who are less than one-quarter Native, including Burton, from practicing the cultural traditions they grew up with. Blood quantum requirements are also used to determine enrollment in many of the regional Alaska Native corporations.

Burton voiced her worries for future Alaska Native generations, seeing as the demographic of Alaska Natives with less than one-quarter blood quantum continues to grow.

“With blood quantum still used as an identifier of Native people, they will one day lose their status and recognition,” Burton said. “The moment when tribal members are no longer Native enough, based on colonial tactics that were used to assimilate, is the moment Indigneous people are bred out of existence.”

Each conference centers around a different theme. One of the state’s 20 Indigenous languages is picked out of a basket to highlight throughout the next conference. This year, the focus was on the language of the Sugpiaq peoples: Sugt’stun and Alutiiq, which includes both Chugach and Koniag dialects.

The institute announced in July that it was moving the traditionally in-person event online. It was an easy decision that aligned with the program’s cultural values, the organization said.

“When we center what is best for our elders and youth, all our loved ones, friends, advocates and our communities, the answer is simple – we will move our two largest events into the unceded virtual space of our Alaska Native peoples,” said the institute.

In a time of uncertainty and challenges, the institute believes the event was particularly important.

“Alaska is and always has been a Native place, and we know the world needs, now more than ever, the balm of Indigenous knowledge, wisdom and ways of life,” the institute said. “Being a part of a collective and responsible community is not only who we are, it is how we survive. We are humbled and honored to press ahead as our ancestors always have.”

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.

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