Alaska News

Young girl takes the stage to urge Native values of taking care of land, each other

FAIRBANKS – In a soft, clear voice, an 11-year-old girl from a small village on Kodiak Island described a vision Monday for living Alaska Native values, for embracing environmental causes, for connecting with other people in this electronic age.

Joan Inga Barnowsky, a home-schooled sixth-grader from Old Harbor, said later she was nervous so took to a chair to calm herself as she gave the opening keynote speech for the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference. Even though she is young and small and was sitting down, she was a big presence, a child talking about navigating old and new worlds.

"Today we all love a good hunt or a big catch," Joan said. But when someone catches too many fish, she said, they should find an elder or a single mom in need. Live the values, she said.

"We must be the protectors of the land."

She talked about environmental causes including the risk of radon, a radioactive gas that anyone can easily check for with a home test – "$120 on Amazon and they work great."

[An 'elder in training' teaches an attentive crowd at the Elders and Youth Conference how to butcher a seal]

Joan looked at the audience and asked who heated with wood stoves, which are common in Fairbanks and can cause air pollution. Wet or unseasoned wood shouldn't be burned, she said. Be a helper and cut and stack wood to give it time to dry before winter, she urged.


Joan is one of the youngest keynote speakers at the Elders and Youth Conference, now in its 33rd year, organizers said. The generations used to meet separately, Willie "Iggiagruk" Hensley, a longtime Native leader and now chairman of the First Alaskans board, told the crowd. But for years Native young people from rural areas were sent away to boarding schools. They didn't learn from elders. The conference, which organizers said draws as many as 1,000 people over three days, is a way to recover some of what was lost, he said.

Joan is Sugpiak, an ancestral name for what some call the Alutiiq people. Her adoptive mother, Bobbi Anne Barnowsky, is a former math and science teacher, a non-Native who now works as tribal administrator in Old Harbor.

James Dunham, who now lives in Washington state but is an Afognak tribal member, said he heard Joan speak at an environmental conference put on by the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe and figured she would be a good pick for Alaska too.

"I'm so proud of you," he told her afterward.

On stage, Joan urged people young and old to connect with each other.

Children are neglected when parents are absorbed with video games, Facebook and Twitter just as they are when parents drink too much, she said. Social media posts – including lots of selfies – are no substitute for real family life, she said.

It works in reverse, too, she said. Elders need to tell young people "to put that thing away." Elders need to share their stories, their knowledge, she said.

Joan, who has a pet bird and a chinchilla, who loves to swim in the ocean and dance Native ways, is thinking ahead to when she is grown up.

Maybe, she said, she'll be a veterinarian or maybe a park ranger.

She is going to take the ancient past with her, she said, wherever she goes.


Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.