Thousands of people from every corner of Alaska’s islands, coastlines and riverbanks convened in Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center on Thursday for the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. In hallways, craft-fair booths and on the main stage, people hugged, joked and caught one another up on what’s happened since last convening for the conference in Fairbanks three years ago.
“I’m so happy people are here in person,” said AFN President Julie Kitka. “Those virtual conventions just didn’t work for me.”
There were plenty of reminders that the threat from COVID-19 is not entirely gone, particularly for rural and Indigenous Alaskans, who were hospitalized and killed by the virus at three times the rate as white residents.
”Clearly we are not out of this pandemic … we’re in a different stage of this pandemic,” said AFN co-chair Joe Nelson Sr. “Often it’s our communities that are the most vulnerable.”
Though masks are encouraged at the three-day conference, they’re not required and were donned by a minority of attendees. COVID-19 booster shots and flu vaccines were free on-site.
Several prominent speakers focused on the ways the state managed to weather the pandemic better than expected because of Alaskans’ resilience, adaptability and willingness to cooperate — ethics and skills, they noted, at the heart of many Indigenous value systems.
“While we were expected to fail, we swam together and thrived,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, recalling collaborations between state, tribal and corporate entities that proved vital for mitigating viral transmission and improving survival rates across the state.
“We survived because of the partnerships,” Zink said.
“This is not saying we’re celebrating, but we should be grateful for the statistics we’ve had,” said Gov. Mike Dunleavy of the state’s experience with COVID during his remarks.
Much of Dunleavy’s address focused on his experience as an educator and raising a family during two decades of living in rural Alaska.
“Rural Alaska is always at the top of my mind because I know living in those communities made me the way I am today,” said Dunleavy, who is running for reelection.
Dunleavy was joined by his wife, Rose, and two of their three daughters, who sat beside the stage. He highlighted their ties to the Northwest Arctic Borough, including the daughters’ jobs at the Red Dog Mine and tribal membership.
“Rural Alaska is not some theoretical place,” Dunleavy said. “I don’t have to imagine the importance of catching wild fish and game to feed my family.”
The governor got a polite reception, one without the crackling protests that interrupted his first speech to the convention back in 2019, following a summer of criticism over his inaugural budget proposal, which many said disproportionately cut essential services to rural and Indigenous parts of the state.
That was not the case with the convention’s keynote speaker on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola, who even before taking the stage was lauded by her long-time friend and AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman as exemplifying the best attributes of an anadromous fish.
“Like the salmon, Mary has a most purposeful journey,” Hoffman said. “She will intuitively make her way home.”
Peltola, the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, was greeted not only by a standing ovation and cheers, but dozens of cutouts of her smiling face handed away by campaign staff to the audience, who waved them with vigor as she took the stage.
“There is no greater honor,” Peltola said of addressing the AFN convention after introducing herself in Yup’ik.
In between asides and recollections, Peltola told attendees she has been surprised by the level of national attention paid to Alaska’s congressional race, attributing it in part to the atmosphere of divisiveness in the country’s political climate.
“Across our nation we are suffering from a lack of unity. We are very, very divided right now in our country,” Peltola said.
She lamented that too many political messages propagate hate, fear and self-pity, which she rejected.
“They’re destructive. They’re acidic. They tear us down,” Peltola said.
“The most powerful thing on earth is the human mind,” she said, attributing the sentiment to lessons gleaned from elders on the Yukon Delta. “And my caveat is ‘if we use it well.’”
Peltola’s remarks were not exactly a campaign speech, but touched on the life lessons and values imparted along the way that she hopes to champion in Congress if elected to serve out a full term after the November midterms.
“I’m so uplifted in this moment because I see the promise of tomorrow,” Peltola said before receiving a standing ovation from the thousands who packed into the convention center’s main hall to hear her speech.
Family of the late Rep. Don Young were on hand, and his daughter Joni Nelson gifted a bolo tie she’d beaded for him by hand to Peltola.
“It meant a lot because she’s a dear friend, and I want her to have the best send-off to Congress,” Nelson said.
Before leaving the stage, she was treated to three hymns sung by a small chorus in different Indigenous languages.
Another remnant of the pandemic that was omnipresent during the conference is discussion of the flood of federal relief aid that has flowed to communities and tribal entities from different aid programs, hundreds of millions of which have been secured by the federation.
“AFN is once again stepping up to advance our goals of shared prosperity and opportunity in this unprecedented period of post-pandemic recovery,” said AFN general counsel Nicole Borromeo.
The organization has capitalized on programs flowing out of Washington, setting up an in-house system for helping tribes apply for grants. So far, according to Borromeo, that’s helped secure more than three-quarters of a billion dollars for essential services still missing from many rural communities like broadband, healthcare access, infrastructure, and small business lending in Alaska.
The ADN’s Marc Lester contributed.