FAIRBANKS -- Politicians and speakers talked a lot about Alaska Native family values on Thursday, the first day of the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention at the Carlson Center.
Gov. Sean Parnell, speaking as a sitting governor and as a candidate for governor in 2014, returned repeatedly to the idea of "family values" when he gave remarks in the morning, citing his work getting more village public safety officers into rural Alaska and his ideas about bringing teachers to village schools via technology and using tribal courts to handle more criminal matters.
Byron Mallott, who may become Parnell's Democratic challenger for governor, spoke in the afternoon, and painted an image, to a supportive audience, of his mother in Yakutat dipping sea gull eggs in seal oil. He wove his relationship with his mother into a long metaphor, talking about his ideas for strengthening education and diversifying the economy.
But it was Jerry Issac, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, whose family story sent electricity through the room.
"I was admitted to the detox center five times," he said just after he took the podium following Mallott.
The usual afternoon chatter at the back of the room went quiet. Faces turned toward the stage.
Issac doesn't like to talk about his alcoholism, he said. It's embarrassing. But he's going to now, he said, because he hopes it helps. He explained that he had married when he was in his early 20s and started a family. He said he regretted the kind of father and husband he had been because of alcohol and gambling.
"I had abused and neglected my family," he said.
There were times when he physically abused his wife, he said. One of his sons committed suicide in 2003, he said. He addressed his living sons in the audience.
"I am terribly, terribly sorry," he said.
His elders encouraged him to take up the drum, he said. They told him he could be a leader.
"Many times I made public statements that all I wanted to do was drink my beer and listen to my Jimi Hendrix."
But, finally, he quit drinking, he said, and found solace in his Athabascan culture. Then he began to take leadership positions and to repair his family.
"After I quit drinking, my late wife and I became friends, and I would like to remember only that period," he said.
He said he had to learn anew what it meant to be an Alaska Native man. He had to get comfortable with being a man without alcohol or violence. He is from Tanacross, he said. His sons there just recently became sober. He called out to one of them in the audience.
"Thank you for being sober!" he said.
The audience erupted in cheers and shouts.
He is proud of his sons' sobriety. It makes him happy to return to his village.
"They are men now," he said. "We joke a lot and we laugh and we tell stories."
The convention, the largest annual gathering of Alaska's indigenous people, continues Friday and Saturday.
Follow Julia O'Malley's updates from Fairbanks on Twitter at twitter.com/adn_jomalley. For more reports from the AFN on Twitter, search #AFN2013.