Alaska Natives filled the stage and the surrounding floor space as a steady drum beat sounded Monday inside the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. Some danced, some hugged and some filmed with iPads and cellphones during the first day of the annual Elders and Youth Conference in downtown Anchorage.
The 32nd annual conference brings at least 1,300 people from across the state to the Dena'ina Center for two and a half days of traditional dancing and singing paired with conversations about heavy topics like suicide and homelessness. The conference leads up to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention that kicks off Thursday.
"You're going to learn from the minute you sit down until the minute you leave here," Eklutna Chief Lee Stephan told the group.
Big news came early Monday in a flurry of surprise proclamations from the state, Municipality of Anchorage and a school board, naming the second Monday in October, the federal Columbus Day holiday, as Indigenous Peoples Day.
The rest of the conference revolved around the theme "Not in Our Smokehouse!" and on Monday those in the audience -- the young and the old, working in teams -- were asked to create lists of what doesn't belong in their smokehouses, which represent their mind, body and spirit, leaders said.
In colored markers they wrote things like alcoholism, drug abuse and violence -- themes that would later emerge as issues to address at this year's conference.
The smell of smoky alder
Step within a few feet of the 12-foot-tall smokehouse and it's easy to smell the smoky alder. Fred Olin last smoked salmon in it Saturday, he said, before disassembling the roof and helping his nephew put it in a U-Haul.
The smokehouse went from Sand Lake in South Anchorage into the Dena'ina Center just in time for the conference that Olin's nephew, Dewey Hoffman, took the lead on organizing in his role as the leadership development director for the First Alaskans Institute.
Hoffman said the smokehouse reminds him of Ruby, a town on the banks of the Yukon River in western Alaska. As a child, he spent each summer at Big Eddy fish camp, upstream from Ruby, and the rest of the year in Anchorage. His grandfather lived in Ruby and would run his 40-foot skiff to Galena or even all the way to Fairbanks to send off fish eggs that he sold to wholesalers in Japan for sushi, Hoffman said.
"He was a pretty tireless guy," he said. "He kind of informed my upbringing and my relationship with fish camp."
With the door closed, the smokehouse, made from recycled shipping crates, resembles a flat-roofed shed. But inside, charred cinderblocks border a pile of alder. Hoffman, who recently turned 30 and wore a black kuspuk, said the smokehouse holds about 33 fish.
For the conference, the smokehouse holds a symbolic meaning. Leaders encouraged those at the conference to feed the fire with new ideas, skills and relationships.
" 'Not in Our Smokehouse' is not divisive, but a conversation started," Hoffman said before the conference. "We can't turn a blind eye to our challenges. We want to build on our strengths."
Returning to fish camp
Lacayah Engebretson asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine themselves at age 6 or 7 on a midsummer day at fish camp.
"You can feel the sun on your back and the wind kind of breeze in your hair," said Engebretson, who graduated from Glennallen High School this spring and spoke as Monday's keynote speaker. "The rivers flowing from one bank literally through your heart and back to the bank."
Those days represented a more simple time when Engebretson said she didn't know what words like "rape" and "alcoholism" meant. She didn't know that the word "drugs" referred to a variety of substances. She thought the biggest social injustice was that people weren't kind to each other, she said.
But as Engebretson aged, she said, she got closer to reality.
"We live in a time that is full of tragedy and hurt and negativity and abuse and addiction and just all of this negative stuff," said 18-year-old Engebretson. "And some days the fact that I can't think about the world in the simple-smile kind of way, it's a little bit overwhelming. But on those days I pull out my fish camp hoodie."
Everyone has that fish camp hoodie, she said. It's kind of big, the sleeves are kind of long and it is marked by some stains, but it smells like smoke. When she puts it on, it takes her to the river, to the feeling of sore bones and hard work. It takes her to the fish camp and to the smokehouse -- where some things just don't belong.
"There wasn't disrespect in our smokehouse," Engebretson said. "There's no unkindness in our smokehouse. Greed is not in our smokehouse. Addiction is not in our smokehouse. Domestic violence is not in our smokehouse. Sexual assault is not in our smokehouse. Negativity is not in our smokehouse."
What does belong in the smokehouse is love, she said.
"Love is Native," she said. "I will always run to that."
Engebretson, an Ahtna Athabascan, Yup'ik and Tlingit who is a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, encouraged the younger members of the crowd to carry on traditions, but not hesitate to update them and make them their own. Her family's smokehouse has a mosquito net, she said, but she doubts the one belonging to her ancestors did.
'There's just lots to learn'
Ivalu Blanchett, a 13-year-old from Anchorage, and Katlin Lewis, a 19-year-old from the Bethel area, sat next to each other in a dimly-lit room on the second floor of the Dena'ina Center as Lyle James stood in the center and spoke in Tlingit, before then speaking in English.
"Gunalchéesh," he said, which translates to "Thank you."
James, who lives in Juneau, told those in the room -- both youth and elders -- that by teaching and learning traditional dances, they can pass down their histories and learn from their ancestors.
"It's from their mouths that we continue to progress from generation to generation," he said. "It's from their mouths that we get to learn from their successes."
The conference focuses on strengthening the connection between elders and youth so they can exchange ideas, support one another and feel connected, Hoffman with the Alaska Native Institute said before Monday's events began.
Monday afternoon, James held the Tlingit session with his wife, Kolene, as the hundreds attending the conference separated into an array of workshops, covering topics from languages to beading and drum-making.
James taught songs and drumming from Southeast Alaska. The women and girls stood in a circle, some steadily beat drums that were made with the hide of elk and deer. The men and boys clustered close in the center and danced with strong movements to the beats, with their legs and arms bent.
"When you dance, you get down," James told the boys and men, crouching.
Some of the conference attendees wore more traditional clothing, like Mukluks and beaded necklaces, while others had on Nike sneakers and sweatshirts.
Blanchett wore a light-colored top and has grown up in Anchorage, but visited family in Bethel over the summer.
She said her grandmother taught her how to count in Yup'ik when she was young. She also learned songs and dances, but doesn't remember all of the words -- but wants to keep learning. It's important, she said.
Sitting next to her, Lewis wore a kuspuk and said she learned Yup'ik as her first language. She said not all of the students from around Bethel could travel to Anchorage to attend the conference and she feared that they were missing out on learning about other cultures around the state.
"There's just lots to learn," Lewis said. She plans to bring what she picks up back home, she said.
Blanchett and Lewis will return to the Dena'ina Center Tuesday along with hundreds of others for the Elders and Youth Conference. The conference will end Wednesday afternoon with the closing ceremony.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing