Alaska's Natives gather for state's largest convention

Kyle Hopkins

On a recent weekday, reigning Iditarod champion John Baker and his team of 17 sled dogs circled the roads of Kotzebue. Lead dogs Velvet and Snickers guided the trot as Baker rode behind in a three-quarter-ton Chevy pickup.

Another fall day. Another training run above the Arctic Circle for Baker's record-busting kennel.

This week, however, the Inupiaq musher is taking a break. Like thousands of Alaskans from towns and villages across the state, Baker is headed to Anchorage for the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

Not only the largest annual gathering of Alaska Natives, the three-day meeting is the biggest regular convention of any kind in the state, the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau said. Alaska's mega-meeting, in other words, is back in town.

The conference begins Thursday at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center downtown with Baker making the keynote speech. The related First Alaskans Elders and Youth Conference begins today.

The visitors bureau expects about 4,200 people to visit the city for AFN while the First Alaskans Institute anticipates about 1,300 for the elders and youth gathering, where people young and old will talk about the past, present and future of Alaska Native culture and language.

All told, convention organizers, attendees and their families are expected to spend more than $7 million while they are here, said Julie Saupe, chief executive for the convention and visitors bureau. Many delegates live in far-flung villages, some from communities where there is no running water, let alone Costco.

"A lot of these folks are coming for medical and dental work as well," Saupe said. "It's a shopping trip for them more than for your traditional convention delegate."

The meeting also is a time for people from villages and towns scattered across Alaska to say hello to old friends and flex the combined political muscle of AFN's 37-member board representing nearly 180 villages.

Last year's convention in Fairbanks briefly transformed into a campaign rally for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was waging an unprecedented write-in campaign to fend off Republican primary winner Joe Miller.

The year before, rural subsistence hunting and fishing rights took center stage as the Obama administration pledged to review federal subsistence oversight in the state. In 2008, soaring rural energy prices prompted AFN delegates to call for pricing caps.

At this year's convention, Murkowski plans to hold a field hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The topic: Alaska's devastating youth suicide rate.

"To really delve into more of the issues surrounding youth suicide. Some of the connections that we know to be at play," Murkowski said in a video address announcing the hearing. "Whether it's depression. Whether it's witnessing acts of violence within the home. Whether it's just lack of support."

Rep. Don Young, Sen. Mark Begich, Gov. Sean Parnell and others also will appear before the delegates. The 2011 conference theme is "Strength In Unity."

Among the many speakers, Kwethluk tribal administrator Max Angellan said he plans to talk about how the tribal government, city government and village corporation in his Yup'ik community are working together on projects like a new plumbing system.

Baker is scheduled to speak at 10:20 a.m. Thursday. He said his message will be one of teamwork too. And perseverance.

"I can only share the experiences that I have as far as making sure that I'm willing to work hard even though sometimes it's easier for me to give up in the Iditarod," he said. "I just keep trying hard and never quit."

This will be Baker's first visit to AFN, he said. Usually he's training this time of year.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at

PDF: AFN agenda
PDF: Elders and Youth Conference Agenda
On the web: AFN convention information
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