FAIRBANKS -- Ask an artisan sitting at a table in the massive Alaska Federation of Natives craft fair where they are from, they will always answer with the name of a village. Maybe Kaltag. Or Kake. Or Napaimute.
But continue the conversation further, often they will say they live in Anchorage or Fairbanks or another larger community. Among the carvers, beaders, skin-sewers, and jewelry-makers at the convention, where you live is secondary. Where you're from is what matters. That spot on the map, even if it has not been a primary home in years, is at the core of their artwork.
"You can live anywhere all over the world but you still got to tell 'em where you're originally from," said Theresa Mike, who is originally from Kotlik but lives most of the year in Chugiak.
Mike was standing at table displaying jewelry and baskets made of seal intestine. Like many artists I talked to, her life is split between city living and village living. She goes back to the Lower Yukon village of Kotlik in the summer months, she said. She hunts seal and moose and gathers greens and medicinal plants, she said.
Ink and watercolor painter Ken Lisbourne grew up in the far north community of Point Hope on the shore of the Chukchi Sea.
His paintings depict village scenes and the harvest of whale and walrus. His human subjects work and pray under whalebone arches. Sometimes he captures them in the act of being resurrected after death, their spirits floating out over rafts of ice. Lisbourne works as a fulltime artist, he said. He lives in Anchorage.
He has family in the city. There is access to healthcare and cheaper groceries. The traffic and the strip malls don't cloud the rural images he paints.
"In my mind are the traditions and culture of my people," he said. "The city doesn't bother my work."
There is Alaska Native culture in the city, just as urban culture is changing the village, he said. When he goes back, he thinks about how old and new mix.
"The younger generation is Eskimo dancing, they are doing their iPhones and cell phones and computers," he said
Mary Jane Derendoff, whose table was covered with beaded flowers and butterflies, told me that she left the village of Huslia when she was 12 to go to school.
"I grew up in the village. Everything I learned, I retained it," she said.
She taught herself to bead when she was in her 20s, which is late in life to learn. Her style, with many colors and tiny beads, is her own, she said. She hasn't moved back to Huslia in part because it is expensive.
"I don't know how people afford to live in the village," she said.
"If your furnace breaks down, you got to have a furnace to keep your house warm, in the village, who is going to fix it?"
She has a big community of Alaska Native friends in Fairbanks, most of them from the same region. Beading is part of how she connects to the culture of her village, but so is her urban community, she said.
"There's a lot of things that make me who I am as an Athabascan."
Fairbanks Four a focus as AFN passes resolutions
The Alaska Federation of Natives delegates approved more than three dozen resolutions Friday morning on a variety of subjects, including suicide, domestic violence, subsistence, honoring Alaska Native subsistence hero Katie John, asking for Alaska Native programs to be protected from sequestration, and supporting the construction of homeless shelters and drug treatment centers in rural hub communities.
Some of the more emotional speeches came during the consideration of a resolution supporting four men — George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, and Eugene Vent — convicted of a 1997 murder in Fairbanks. The men, known as “the Fairbanks Four,” are all Alaska Native or American Indian and have maintained their innocence. Earlier this month the Alaska Department of Law ordered a review of the evidence in the case after a court filing by the Alaska Innocence Project.
At AFN on Friday, Tanana Chiefs Council head Jerry Isaac said the men were “convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence that is pure fabrication.” Evon Peter, a Alaska Native leader from Arctic Village, recalled being a teen in Fairbanks in the 1990. Law enforcement was “racist and aggressive” and targeted Native young men.
Shortly after the resolution passed, more than 100 protesters spilled into the auditorium and then marched through the building drumming and waving signs in support of the men.
AFN elects two women as co-chairs
In a first for the Alaska Federation of Natives, the body selected two women, both born after the implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, to serve as AFN co-chairs. Co-chair Tara Sweeney is the senior vice president of external affairs for Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Co-chair Ana Hoffman is the CEO of Bethel Native Corp. The AFN convention, the largest annual gathering of Alaska’s indigenous people, concluded on Saturday.