Each year, the Alaska Federation of Natives honors standouts in a variety of fields, including education, health and public safety. Here are this year’s awards, with summaries of each winner based on information from AFN.
Walter Soboleff “Warriors of Light” award
Nome residents Oliver and Wilson Hoogendorn received the Walter Soboleff award.
The Iñupiaq brothers, who enjoy hunting and fishing, recently won the survival competition reality television series “Race to Survive: Alaska.”
In 2019, they were the first Alaska Native team to summit Denali and ski down in a day.
”I think we just try our best to represent our people the best we can,” said Wilson Hoogendorn, a gold diver, speaking to the AFN crowd.
He also spoke about the importance of finding a way to motivate yourself. “When you wake up, it’s good to have something to look forward to.”
Oliver Hoogendorn, who is a commercial fisherman, told AFN that the support from their loved ones makes it easier to succeed in things they do.
“When I was a kid, I would see successful people and think they did it all by themselves,” he said. “But as I grew older, I quickly learned that’s not the case. We have lots of friends and family and girlfriends who support us in everything we do.”
“Not lots of girlfriends!” he clarified after the audience started laughing. “But they support us in everything we do, and I think that helps more than they know.”
Named for the late Dr. Walter Soboleff, this award recognized individuals who uplift our people, enrich our spirits, and unify Alaska Native people, AFN said in a statement.
Parents of the Year
The Parents of the Year award went to a couple from Utqiaġvik‚ Jerica “Niayuq” and Wilbur “Qaiyaan” Leavitt.
The couple is raising two daughters in their hometown, immersing them in Iñupiaq culture through camping and being on the land.
”We’re always around our culture,” said Jerica Leavitt, standing on stage clad in her traditional regalia. “Allowing our kids to feel the Nuna, the land, and the ocean, our waterways, with every inch of their being instills this sense of belonging.”
Qaiyaan Leavitt is a seasoned hunter, whaler and a provider for his family. He grew up hunting and wants to pass those traditions to his children, to make sure that they “know who they are, where they’re from.”
Jerica Leavitt works as an assistant professor of Iñupiaq studies at Ilisaġvik College, and in her free time, she picks edible and medicinal tundra plants and sews traditional clothing.
”Let us continue to clothe our kids in our cultural beauty,” Jerica Leavitt said. “Let us go out of our comfort zones to do what we can to continue learning our culture and traditions to pass it on. Let us raise them with the mindset for love of the animals in mind. Let us allow them to get dirty, and lastly, let us be like Qaiyaan’s family, who don’t say, ‘No, get out of the way.’ ”
Culture Bearer award
Educator Nita Yuurliq Rearden won the Culture Bearer award for bringing her cultural knowledge with her in every activity, from cooking traditional subsistence foods to sewing, passing knowledge passed down to her by her grandparents and parents, AFN said in a biography. Rearden is originally from the Bethel region.
Rearden, speaking to AFN after receiving her award, shared wisdom from her late Yup’ik grandmother before she died.
Rearden advised people to wear their mothers’ and grandmothers’ mukluks or traditional skin boots, and learn how to sew, so they can always carry the knowledge of their ancestors.
Della Keats “Healing Hands” award
Tribal healer Etta Tall received the Della Keats award for her long work in the medical field since she graduated from high school in 1988.
She’s been a combat medic in the Army National Guard, a health aide and certified nursing assistant and family health navigator.
Tall, originally from Little Diomede, works for the Norton Sound Health Corp., serving people in her Northwest Alaska region.
Speaking to the AFN delegates Friday, Tall she was inspired to enter the medical field thanks to the work of Ted Mala, an Inupiaq who in 1990 became the first Alaska Native to serve as the state’s health commissioner, and Keats, a late Inupiaq healer and the award’s namesake, who for more than 50 years served health care needs in Northwest Alaska.
Public Service award
Carol Gore, the former longtime president of the Anchorage-based Cook Inlet Housing Authority, received the Public Service award. The authority has built affordable housing in Anchorage and other communities, helping many Alaska Native people and others find housing.
“There is no greater privilege than to work for your people and the community where you grew up,” said Gore, who is of Aleut descent, as she accepted her award.
Gore said it’s a powerful experience hearing from tearful elders moving into a new home that they never imagined they could live in.
AFN said Gore “has led the charge for responsible affordable housing and community development through innovation and collaboration.”
Gore serves on a variety of local and national boards and committees. She stepped aside from her post at Cook Inlet Housing in June 2023 to open the door for new leaders, AFN said.
Lu Young Youth Leadership award
Kaitlyn Angayaq Hanson, a Yup’ik from the Southwest Alaska village of Alakanuk, received the youth leadership award.
Hanson, a biology student at the University of Alaska, works as a lead youth peer mentor for the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, mentoring middle school students from around the state, the Alaska Federation of Natives said.
She’s “a founding member of the Ciuliamta Traditional Drummers and Dancers in Anchorage, which has allowed her to perform across the state, share her culture with others, and help keep the tradition of song and dance alive,” the organization said.
Hanson, giving a brief speech to the AFN crowd, thanked her parents for teaching her that culture and traditions are an important part of her identity.
Citizen of the Year award
The late Margaret Agnguarta Roberts received the Citizen of the Year award for her “tireless contributions” toward improving the lives of Alaska Native people.
That includes being a founder of the Kodiak Alutiiq Dance group more than 30 years ago, helping preserve ancient traditions in doing so. Roberts, who died in 2022, also was key to the creation of a museum dedicated to the Alutiiq culture, among other accomplishments.
Roberts was born in Kodiak and graduated from Kodiak High School in 1967, AFN said in a biography.
“Joining local and statewide efforts to help those struggling with addictions was close to Margaret’s heart as was faithfully attending the Annual Women’s Wellness Retreat, Dig Afognak Camp and the Elders and Youth Conference for the Alaska Federation of Natives,” AFN said.
At AFN on Friday, relatives and friends honored Roberts with a traditional dance.
Family members described her from the AFN stage as a tireless advocate working to preserve the Alutiiq language and culture. She often came home early in the morning after working all night writing grants to benefit her community, for example.
Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said Roberts and others were “right at the front edge of a cultural renaissance.”
“She was like a warrior,” Kitka said, adding that Roberts recognized the inherent sovereignty of tribes before Alaska tribes were federally recognized in the 1990s.
Elder of the Year award
Linguist and educator Edna Paniataq Ahgeak MacLean received this award after dedicating more than 50 years to preserving the Iñupiaq language.
MacLean, who grew up during the time when children were punished for speaking their Native languages, developed a Bachelor of Arts program in the Iñupiaq language at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and served as the state’s special assistant for rural education and as the first president of Alaska’s only accredited tribal college, Ilisaġvik College.
“Our language identifies us,” she said from the AFN stage. “Through the Iñupiaq language, (our ancestors) brought all the knowledge that they have of the ocean, the land, the interaction between land and ocean, and then their conception of spiritual life and how a community functions.”
In 2014, MacLean published an Iñupiaq language dictionary. Since then, she has been helping to digitize the dictionary to make learning easier and advocating for immersive language education.
”For the parents and the elders of our Alaska Native young people — support them,” MacLean said. “Let them know that you stand for your language, that you stand for your culture.”
Courtney Carothers, a professor of fisheries in the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has devoted her career to working with fishing communities across Alaska and addressing inequities in fishing policy. She’s also worked to increase Native participation in the field.
Carothers, after working with villages on Kodiak Island about 20 years ago, has partnered with Indigenous communities to promote social and environmental justice goals, the Alaska Federation of Natives said.
She is working to transform fisheries education in Alaska has elevated Alaska Native views, including with the Tamamta program that helps Indigenous students pursue their graduate degrees in fisheries and marine sciences, the group said. Tamamta means “All of Us” in the Sugpiaq and Yup’ik languages.
The Denali award goes to non-Native people who have made an important contribution to the Alaska Native community.
Governor’s special award: Honoring the Legacy of Shirley Demientieff
A longtime employee of the Division of Community and Regional Affairs, who worked many years to assist rural communities, received this award honoring the late Athabascan leader.
Sally Russell Cox, a local government specialist, has worked on efforts to relocate the eroding Southwest Alaska village of Newtok. She has also worked with communities to deal with climate change impacts and other efforts, said Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom, who presented the award from the AFN stage.
“It has been such a privilege to work with the wonderful peoples of Alaska communities,” Cox said.