Strength in Unity is motto of 51st AFN convention
Leadership, partnership and social justice were the overarching topics under the “Strength in Unity” theme for the 51st Alaska Federation of Natives Convention held Oct. 19 through 21 at the Dena’ina Convention Center in Anchorage.
Organizers estimated that about 5,000 people attended from all across the state in the nation’s largest representative annual gathering of any Native peoples.
Leadership, partnership and social justice were all on full display throughout the three-day event. Beginning with the keynote speakers, Col. Wayne Don, of the Alaska Army National Guard, 38th Troop Command commander, originally from Nunivak Island, and Sgt. Jody Potts, village public safety officer and director of Public Safety, Tanana Chiefs Conference shared stories of their youth growing up in their villages with strong role models in their grandparents, mothers and elders.
Col. Don spoke about being in training for leadership and service since he was a child living next to his grandparents and instinctively knowing that his grandfather was ill and his grandmother needed his help. Don said he gained “empathy and service and responsibility” that have carried him forward in his roles within the military as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and now as a troop commander in Alaska.
Potts credited her strong, outspoken and independent Gwich’in mother who worked as a health aid and served on the tribal council for showing her the way of strength and leadership as she went forward in life.
Potts told the story of her mother helping to put bootleggers in jail after her brother, and Potts’ uncle committed suicide after drinking. She spoke about how the traditional values of living off the land, growing up in Eagle, and becoming a tri-athlete and dog musher combined to help her work through the recent loss of her three childrens’ father to suicide and that strength from traditional values could also help others through personal losses, challenges to Native culture and impact of colonialism.
Suicide, sexual assault and violence in families are the terrible lingering impacts of colonialism, Potts said. She encouraged everyone to get involved and come together to help.
“I encourage all of us to rise up and stand with our victims of violence. Stand up with me,” Potts told the audience. “There’s not enough of that in our villages.” The crowd stood up with her and applauded her rousing address.
Partnership and Social Justice
Compared to last year’s election convention held so close to the presidential election, 2017 felt much more subdued with less overall attendee engagement with panel discussions and delegate activities.
Issues of sovereignty and partnering with state agencies to take a proactive role in the lives of children in Alaska Native communities were the biggest topics of the convention this year. Delegates from Bering Strait and other communities remarked that there really were few big issues or controversies to take up in the break-out sessions this year.
Alaska Governor Bill Walker signed a historic Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact with 17 Alaska Tribes and Tribal Organizations on first afternoon of the convention, October 19. The compact recognizes the authority of Alaska tribes to provide child welfare programs and services on behalf of the state.
The nomination of an Alaska Native to be Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in the Trump administration drew much excitement and buzz throughout the event and cheering and applause when AFN President Julie Kitka called Tara Sweeney, a former AFN co-chair and current vice president of Arctic Slope Regional Corp. to the podium to say a few words.
“I am almost an empty nester so I’ve got a lot of time on my hands coming up. I certainly am up for the task if confirmed,” Sweeney said. “I really appreciate all the support from this body,” she added and “I hope that if confirmed I will represent Alaska and the Native American community well.”
Kitka proudly told the convention that Sweeney’s nominated position oversees $2.5 billion in spending and opens up new opportunities.
Areas of leadership recognized annually at AFN are the top awards honoring elders, parents, youth and other inspiring members of Alaska Native communities.
This year, a Nome father of six, Franklin “Buddy” Okleasik Jr. was honored as Parent of the Year for exhibiting values important to the physical, social and cultural survival of Alaska Native people. Okleasik has six children with his late wife, Denise, and is raising their four daughters alone in Nome.
Elder of the Year honors went to Isaac Kupaaq Tulugak Akootchook, 95, an Inupiaq elder and the oldest living person on the North Slope. Akootchook is a longtime leader, educator and preserver of Native culture with seven children, 17 grandchildren, 47 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren. He served on the Kaktovik City Council, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advisory committee and the Alaska Polar Bear Commission.
“Don’t sell yourself short like I used to do,” Macy Kenworthy, told youth in the audience as she was awarded the Lu Young Youth Leadership Award. Named after the late wife of U.S. Rep. Don Young, the award is given to a young woman who challenges herself to be a future leader. Kenworthy, an Inupiaq, is currently serving as Miss Teen Arctic Circle attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Additional awards were presented to individuals across the state and even more topics discussed than were covered above including: opioid crisis, criminal justice, climate change and infrastructure.