Alaska News

Tanana Chiefs leader bares all in moving support of new commitment to Alaska Native family values

FAIRBANKS—Jerry Isaac, an Athabascan from Tanacross, a village about 200 miles southeast of here, said he is not proud that he was admitted to a detoxification center five times in his life, or that his children sometimes went without food and he abused his wife.

"I don't know why I embarked on this mission to disclose some of the darkest parts of my life," he told the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention Thursday afternoon. He said it was embarrassing to confess those details in public, but he believes something good might come out of it.

"I guess it's in hopes that listeners, people out there who may be having problems, could use this as a guiding light to bring themselves together," he said.

Isaac, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference since 2006, addressed the audience about a critical need he sees for a restoration of traditional Native family values.

He said he had strong lessons instilled in him at an early age by his family, but he still grew up thinking that he was not the equal of his non-Native peers.

He used the story of his descent into addiction and recovery to explain the mission that he has set for himself after the leaves the TCC presidency next year.

As a young man, he said, his grandfather, father and uncle wanted him to take up the Athabascan drum.

"But I resisted because I was not the type of man that the drum represented," he said. There was a higher level of responsibility that came with the drum.

"All I wanted to do was drink my beer and listen to my Jimi Hendrix music."

Isaac gained rejuvenation from his family after getting clear of alcohol and recovering from other family tragedies. He said he spent much of his life trying to avoid what he was supposed to be, someone who could help look after his village and his people.

"But the drum was not very far away," he said. "It revealed its power through the death of my uncle, Andrew Isaac, when revelation was so clear and so powerful that I was scared right into taking the drum up."

He said the process of seeking forgiveness, accepting himself and learning to love his family was a long one.

"I had to learn how to be the man I was supposed to be," he said.

Isaac and his late wife became friends after he quit drinking, and he likes to remember the last 10 years of her life, when they had good times.

While Isaac's term at TCC expires next year, he said he already has a new challenge for himself.

"I am eager to return to my clan to spark a resurgence of Athabascan values. I have a vision that the next generation will speak their language, know their ceremonies and teach their children and elders and to be at peace and in love with one another," he said. "I have a vision that we are to resurrect the Athabascan spirituality on the basis of knowing who you are as a Native person."

He invited others to join the mission, which is about survival. "We need to reestablish ourselves. And we need to be proud of our achievements and proud of the people that we are."

He closed by singing a song written by his uncle about the Tanacross people. He said he hoped it would help jumpstart the mission — "to make us be proud with our languages, our songs and our dancing."

As his strong voice echoed through the Carlson Center, the mission took off.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole

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