FAIRBANKS — Advice from a couple approaching 70 years of marriage. Dance lessons. Native language class, with humor.

On a day punctuated by weighty topics including social justice, tribal suicide prevention and reshaped schools, there was still time to play and laugh at the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference on Tuesday.

Mark John, left, translates for Elders and Youth keynote speakers Raphael and Vivian Jimmy during the elders keynote address at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks on Tuesday. The Jimmys have been married nearly 70 years. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
Mark John, left, translates for Elders and Youth keynote speakers Raphael and Vivian Jimmy during the elders keynote address at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks on Tuesday. The Jimmys have been married nearly 70 years. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

No ring, no wedding dress

Start with the keynote speech — in Yup'ik — by Raphael and Vivian Jimmy, who are originally from the Lower Yukon and live in Anchorage now. Much of what they had to say was about their relationship. Mark John, a fluent speaker who grew up in Toksook Bay, interpreted for the crowd.

Raphael didn't learn English. His father didn't see much point in school. What would it teach him about hunting or fishing. Vivian went to a mission school called Akuluraq.

Their mothers arranged their marriage. They never met before that day in 1947 and were a bit scared of each other. There was no wedding gown or rings, no fancy suit or flowers.

"I wasn't even smiling when I was married!" Vivian said, busting up the crowd.

They grew together and respect their marriage. They have a strong chain between them that won't break even if one or the other connected with someone else, Raphael said.

"That is what guides them today," John said, relaying the older man's words. "The only time that chain is going to break is when one of them passes away."

Emcee Olivia Shields, left, and First Alaskans Institute president Liz Medicine Crow laugh at a remark made by Elders and Youth keynote speakers Raphael and Vivian Jimmy during the elders keynote address. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
Emcee Olivia Shields, left, and First Alaskans Institute president Liz Medicine Crow laugh at a remark made by Elders and Youth keynote speakers Raphael and Vivian Jimmy during the elders keynote address. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Learning the language

Walkie Charles, an assistant professor of Yup'ik, or Yugtun, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, led a "Living the Culture" workshop on the language he so loves.

"We learn one little piece at a time," he explained. But even though the class includes much repetition, "you miss a day, you miss a lot."

He pairs up students so they can figure out the answer together, or at least give it a good try. Go ahead and make a mistake, he urges. It's OK to say it wrong.

"When they learn, I will do my happy dance," he said, demonstrating to laughter.

Jana Ticket, from Anaktuvuk Pass, tries to catch Anvik resident Isaac Ticknor as they dance the rabbit dance, a traditional Gwich’in fiddle dance, during a workshop on Tuesday. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
Jana Ticket, from Anaktuvuk Pass, tries to catch Anvik resident Isaac Ticknor as they dance the rabbit dance, a traditional Gwich’in fiddle dance, during a workshop on Tuesday. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Fiddle dancing

In another room at the Carlson Center, Evon Peter — a UAF vice chancellor — was teaching old and young how to fiddle dance. He started with some easier steps and worked up to the rope dance, an eight-couple circle dance that had everyone spinning and weaving, not necessarily at the right time at first.

"Women should be swinging this way!" Peter said.

But soon they got it, men going one way, women the other way, then back to where they started. They worked up a sweat too.

Ezekiel Duncan, 9, and Jezelle Eskilida, 7, both from Valdez, learn a traditional Gwich’in fiddle dance at a workshop Tuesday. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
Ezekiel Duncan, 9, and Jezelle Eskilida, 7, both from Valdez, learn a traditional Gwich’in fiddle dance at a workshop Tuesday. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Ezekiel Duncan, 9, looked like he already knew the steps. But it was new to him, and he said, a new way to have fun.

The conference, said First Alaskans Institute president and chief executive Liz Medicine Crow, uses culture to help young people develop as leaders.

"So they feel loved. So they know who they are. And so they can stand up and help their communities," Crow said, describing her hope for the youth there. Elders are shown how much they have to give, and how appreciated it is.

This year's event, with the theme Ancestral Imperative, wraps up on Wednesday.