The Alaska Federation of Natives participated in a surprise protest Thursday as hundreds of delegates raised hands with four fingers displayed, urging the governor to free the Fairbanks Four while an AFN co-chair sang a traditional grieving song usually reserved for those who die.
"There's no death, but a forceful taking away of freedom from four young men," said Jerry Isaac, co-chair of the state's largest Native organization. "We are shocked and saddened and grieving because the facts prove them innocent."
When he sang, he did so softly in Tanacross Athabascan.
"Righteousness is great. Where is it?" and "God almighty. Help us to correct this," he said, interpreting the lyrics for a reporter.
The protest marked the start of the 49th annual AFN Convention at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. AFN calls the three-day event the largest gathering of indigenous people in the U.S., as thousands pour in from across the state to help set the year's political course for Alaska Natives.
The unusual demonstration Thursday morning came at a time usually dedicated to welcoming presentations and conference reports.
Gov. Bill Walker stood onstage as Isaac sang, listening with hands folded and a solemn look.
He offered no assurance that he'd seek to pardon Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and George Frese, four men who many believe were improperly convicted of murdering John Hartman in Fairbanks 18 years ago when they were between 17 and 21 years old.
Walker had just given a speech highlighting his efforts to improve the state's relationship with Alaska Natives, receiving applause for key steps, including a decision that law enforcement officers must enforce tribal protective orders as if they came from an Alaska court. Among other things, Walker also highlighted a newly issued emergency regulation designed to ease burdens on Alaska Natives hoping to adopt Native children. He said he absolutely "will not balance Alaska's budget on the backs of rural Alaska."
Obama 'taken' with Alaska
The caliber of speakers who attend the AFN Convention every year underscores the event's status, with the state's congressional delegation speaking annually and top federal officials often making presentations. This year, speakers include Raina Thiele, associate director in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement.
Thiele announced at AFN on Thursday that three members of the Obama administration are planning to visit Alaska, after the president has urged his cabinet members to travel north.
When they might come is still up in the air.
"We don't have an exact schedule but we are working to firm things up now," said Thiele.
Planning to visit are Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the administrator of the Small Business Administration, Maria Contreras-Sweet, said Thiele.
She said more cabinet members will probably also come to Alaska in the wake of President Barack Obama's historic trip to the state last month. Obama was "taken" with the state's people and culture, and folks in the White House can't stop talking about the tour, she said.
"The president wants more of his cabinet to visit Alaska" to learn more about the unique state and to be more responsive leaders, she said.
Walker on the spot
As for the men known as the Fairbanks Four and their effort to have the state overturn their convictions, Walker said he is closely watching an ongoing evidentiary hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court where the men have the opportunity to "clear their good names."
Walker also encouraged people in the audience to "not temper" their passion on the topic.
As he spoke during Thursday's opening ceremonies, about 30 protesters unfurled a banner calling for "Justice." But that was just the beginning.
The huge audience soon rose and the four-finger dissent spread across the convention floor -- along with chants of "No More Four!" -- when AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman called up the rest of the AFN board to the stage and told Walker: "We have an important message for you. Free the Fairbanks Four."
Hoffman said later she "trusts he'll do the right thing."
The forceful request came on the heels of praise from longtime AFN president Julie Kitka, who said she'd never met leaders more "genuinely determined" to collaborate with Alaska Natives in a search for solutions than Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
Not everyone held that view.
Protester Misty Nickoli, who is Frese's cousin and went to Bible camp with Roberts, said the governor's words on the Fairbanks Four rang hollow.
"I get that he was appeasing the crowd at AFN. That's my personal opinion," said Nickoli, who said she wanted to hear Walker say he would pardon the men.
In an interview afterward, the governor said he had thought about stopping by to watch the hearing when he was in Fairbanks earlier this week, but decided against it because he did not want to influence the proceedings.
Asked if he would consider a pardon if the men did not have success in court, Walker said he wanted the hearing to play out because it could provide additional information to consider. He said a pardon would take 120 days and anything he could do now would take away from their effort to exonerate themselves.
"I don't want to take anything away from their opportunity to have their day in court," he said.
Honoring a 'true culture-bearer'
Shortly before the onstage protest, Walker presented Poldine Carlo of Fairbanks with AFN's Shirley Demientieff Award, calling the 94-year-old a "true culture-bearer" who has long advocated on behalf of Alaska Native women and children.
Carlo helped create the Fairbanks Native Association in the mid-1960s, launching a group for urban Natives that now provides a wide array of community services across Fairbanks.
In 1978, she wrote "Nulato: An Indian Life on the Yukon," about the story of her life as a young Athabascan woman growing up in the 1920s and 1930s.
Today, she remains involved, spending "countless hours" mentoring younger generations and attending every board meeting for the Fairbanks Native Association and Doyon Limited, and Denakkanaaga, Walker said.
"She is heavily involved in issues important to her community, and she has blessed the lives of so many Alaskans," he said.