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AFN convention brings a week of events that shine a light on Alaska Native culture and issues

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: October 17, 2017
  • Published October 15, 2017

Listen to speeches meant to inspire and panels of experts who tackle deep Alaska troubles. Sit and watch Alaska Native dances and learn to dance yourself. And when you need a break, shop a huge bazaar of Native arts and crafts.

The Alaska Federation of Natives convention and associated events are happening this week in Anchorage.

AFN's convention is the biggest annual such gathering of Native people in the country. It is part education, part celebration. Those who have dedicated their lives to benefit Alaska Native people are applauded. Those just coming up are encouraged.

Between 4,000 to 5,000 Alaska Native people from around Alaska attend the AFN convention, which starts Thursday at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. Some come early for the First Alaskans Institute's annual Elders and Youth Conference, a separate preamble event that draws about 1,200 people. It officially opens Monday at the Dena'ina Center. Other related meetings and events are scheduled through the week.

Tribal leaders gather Wednesday at the Egan Center for a combined meeting of AFN and the National Congress of American Indians examining state and federal issues.

The Elders and Youth Conference, with a theme of Part Land, Part Water – Always Native, starts it all. Participants can register at the door. Elders are free. The cost for young people and chaperones is $55.

On Monday, young leaders will sit down on a panel with Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. Chris Apassingok, a 16-year-old from the St. Lawrence Island village of Gambell, will give the youth keynote at the conference, with support from his mother and father. He gained national attention earlier this year after he struck a large bowhead whale during the spring hunt and then became a target of online harassment by animal rights activists. The elder keynote is by Clare Swan of the Kenaitze tribe on the Kenai Peninsula, a dynamic leader who fought years ago for a community fishing permit for the tribe.

As in recent years, the Elders and Youth Conference will feature a choice of afternoon practical workshops where young people can learn skills including moose hide tanning and salmon filleting, Gwich'in fiddle dancing and Yup'ik drum making. They can get exposed to Native languages or try making a cedar bark bracelet. Right after come challenging topical workshops on areas such as suicide, land management and historical trauma.

"We want them not only to have the tactile, hands-on, cultural practices and language practices, to help and strengthen those skills, but we want them to come to the subject matter through the lens of our cultural strength and knowledge," said Liz Medicine Crow, First Alaskans Institute president and chief executive officer.

This year's AFN conference theme is "Strength in Unity: Leadership-Partnerships-Social Justice."

At the AFN conference, Alaska political leaders including Walker, Mallott, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and U.S. Rep. Don Young will each address the crowd. So will Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who will speak by video teleconference on Thursday morning. The state Office of Children's Services is making an announcement.

Keynote speakers Lt. Col. Wayne Don of the Alaska Army National Guard and Sgt. Jody Potts of Tanana Chiefs Conference will take the stage Thursday morning.

Don grew up on Nunivak Island in Southwest Alaska and graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a degree and an officer's commission. According to AFN, he traveled the world as a soldier and recently was selected for promotion to colonel.

Potts, Tanana Chiefs director of public safety, oversees village public safety officers in Interior Alaska. She is Han Gwich'in from the Native Village of Eagle. She has competed in triathlons around the country including a grueling long-distance Ironman race that includes a marathon run. She has been a dog musher. She hunts, does beadwork and skin sewing and enjoys an outdoor life.

The AFN convention, which is open to the public, also includes panels on social justice, the opioid epidemic and climate change.

All of the convention will be televised live from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday on GCI cable, ARCS and 360 North, and also live streamed at

Here is what is happening:

• Both the First Alaskans Institute and AFN conferences will be live-streamed on their webpages and broadcast on GCI's local channels 1 and HD 907 in Anchorage.

• There's an app for AFN Convention 2017 that includes an agenda and updates.

• Events are at the Dena'ina Center except the Wednesday tribal leaders meeting at the Egan.

• First Alaskans Elders and Youth Conference opens with registration early Monday morning and wraps up Wednesday at noon. It also features an art, business and education showcase on the first floor that is open to the public.

• Participants can try out Monday afternoon for Alaska Natives Got Talent, with a performance that evening at Chin'an, an Alaska Native cultural celebration that starts at 7 p.m. Monday. Tickets for Chin'an — which means "thanks" in Dena'ina — are $5.

• The tribal leaders conference runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

• AFN begins with a cultural performance at 8 a.m. Thursday and a call to order at 8:30 a.m. by co-chairs Ana Hoffman and Will Mayo. It runs Thursday, Friday and most of Saturday.

• AFN includes popular evening dance performances Thursday and Friday called Quyana Alaska — after "thank you" in Yup'ik. Tickets are $10.

• Southcentral Foundation is sponsoring what it is calling the IndigeDance Challenge. Groups were asked to create a new dance. Finalists will be judged Saturday afternoon at the convention. The winner will perform at Saturday night's banquet along with a New Zealand Maori group doing the traditional haka war dance.

• The Alaska Native Customary Art Fair will run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and wraps up at 3 p.m. on Saturday. More than 170 artists and craftspeople are expected this year. Go early. The art fair draws big crowds. Some artists sell out.

Note: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong translation for chin'an. The word means "thanks" in Dena'ina, not "hello."

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