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Natasha Brennan
Special to Indian Country Today

RES 2021 is on.

The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development announced the Reservation Economic Summit, RES 2021, will be held both in-person and virtually this year, albeit a few months later than expected.

RES 2021 — believed to be the largest economic summit in Indian Country — usually occurs in March, attracting more than 3,000 tribal leaders, members of Congress, federal agency representatives, state and local elected officials and top CEOs from around the nation with the goal of “building bridges of opportunity with and for the American Indian Enterprise.”

RES 2021 is among several key events that are going forwarded this year, with UNITY — the United National Indian Tribal Youth — expected to meet in-person in July in Dallas, Texas.

But Celebration, billed as the largest gathering of Alaska Natives in southeast Alaska, was canceled this year and is expected to return next year as an in-person event.

Res 2021 — which will include an artisan market, trade show and business networking — will be held July 19-21 at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. For the first time, attendance can be in-person or virtual, with tickets for the virtual registration costing about a third of the in-person tickets. People from the U.S. and Canada are expected to attend.

The event also offers an opportunity for Native businesses to meet with Fortune 500 Companies in the Buy Native Procurement Matchmaking Expo.

RES 2021 offers options

RES 2020 was held in-person in Las Vegas March 3-5, 2020, just weeks before the pandemic hit. Offering an online attendance option this year was a difficult decision, officials said, but moving the event from March to July allowed extra time for preparation.

"We are not out of the woods yet, but we believe the July date, dual attendance options, and adherence to public health guidelines provide us the opportunity to host RES at something close to normal," president and chief executive Chris James told Indian Country Today in a statement via email.

Chris James, president/CEO, The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.

"For many, it was the last trip they took or the last large event they attended,” he said. “Nothing could fully prepare us for the changes that would come over the next 14 months, but we have had plenty of time to think about how an in-person RES could work. For the people who came to RES 2020 in particular, I hope RES 2021 is a celebration of sorts – their first 'return to normal' experience."

So far, most attendees have elected to participate in-person, James said.

Though organizers are expecting fewer in attendance than usual, vendors have already sold out spots to be a part of the artisan market and more than half of the exhibitor booths for the trade show have been sold, according to the website.

New for the summit is the addition of the American Indian Business Leader’s Annual National Conference, to be held in conjunction with RES2021. AIBL is the only Indigenous nonprofit organization solely dedicated to empowering business students in the United States. James is hopeful the addition will boost attendance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made building connections within Indian Country challenging. Training sessions offered by the center have transitioned to virtual events, offered for free, with a focus on how businesses can survive the pandemic and thrive afterward.

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"A majority of our clients have experienced significant COVID-related issues," James wrote. "While nothing can replace the value of a face-to-face meeting, we’ve done our best to approximate networking and training in a virtual world."

And though most attendees for RES 2021 have elected to join in-person, organizers are working hard to make the virtual experience enjoyable.

"While virtual attendance means that you might miss out on the networking opportunities or visiting with trade show exhibitors directly, you’ll still be able to attend sessions, listen to speakers, and watch the general session," James said.

More details about attending virtually will be released soon, but for now James encourages in-person attendees to wear masks, social distance, take the vaccine and watch their safety video.

UNITY comes together

While some large gatherings are splitting between in-person and virtual, UNITY decided to celebrate the largest Native youth conference (and its big 45th birthday year) in-person. 

The national organization, United National Indian Tribal Youth, held its mid-year conference virtually late April and has its annual conference slated for the beginning of July in Dallas, Texas. 

COVID precautions will be put in place, such as reduction of attendees by more than 50 percent of the venue capacity and no on-site registration.   

(Newscast: 'UNITY is magical')

On Indian Country Today's newscast, executive director Mary Kim Titla, San Carlos Apache, talked about the organization's history and the Native youth they helped since its founding in 1976 in Southwestern Oklahoma, and hopes for the future. 

Celebration for next year

Celebration, a four-day dance-and-cultural event billed as the largest gathering of Alaska Natives in southeast Alaska, will return next year as an in-person event after widespread immunizations in the nation’s largest state, organizers said Thursday.

Sealaska Heritage Institute said the event celebrating Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures will be held in Juneau from June 8-11, 2022.

The institute’s board of directors decided to return to an in-person event after the release of coronavirus vaccines, widespread immunizations and the confidence of the staff that life will be back to normal next year, said Rosita Worl, the institute’s president.

The biennial event was held virtually in 2020. Another event planned for this year was scrapped in January.

“We cancelled the in-person event because we had to protect our people. We look forward to reuniting in 2022 and celebrating our cultural survival,” Worl said in a statement. “We survived this pandemic. We are still here.”

The theme for the event will be “Celebrating 10,000 Years of Cultural Survival.”

The event, first held in 1982, draws thousands of people to Alaska’s capital city, including 2,000 dancers. Many of those attending dress in the traditional regalia of clans from throughout southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

Associated events include a Native fashion show, a juried art show, art market, Native food contests, lectures and a parade through downtown Juneau.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.