The First Alaskans Institute is hosting the Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage this week. The conference gives elders and youth from around the state a chance to learn from each other and pass on Native cultures.
Elder Marlene Johnson from Hoonah has attended the conference since it began about 25 years ago. She said that back then only 50 or so people attended. Today, hundreds of people pack the Dena’ina Center. She said the conference is a chance for youth to learn about their culture and about their own abilities.
“Youth and Elders is putting confidence in the young people, and it’s showing them everyday that we trust them, we like them, we want them,” Johnson said.
It also creates important connections between generations and helps bridge the cultural gap created by the generation of Alaska Natives who were sent off to boarding school and didn’t learn their own cultures.
“Thousands of young people were sent to a boarding home program from junior high all the way through,” Johnson explained. “Some of them barely spent any time in the village after that because they couldn’t come home for the holidays and in the summer time they got jobs.”
One of the major gaps was in language learning. That was the focus for youth keynote speaker Peter Squartsoff.
“Three years ago I came here to AFN in this very hall, sitting like you are now. Not a clue,” he said before the room filled with people aged 4 to 92. “I had no knowledge of my language, no knowledge of my past. Then when we broke out into our language groups I was struck with how limited we are with our language.”
His experience at Elders and Youth inspired him to go home to Port Lyons to learn Alutiiq and to transcribe Alutiiq songs into a book for future generations.
Many of this year’s conference workshop sessions focused on the different ways to pass on culture from one generation to the next through formal education and through building a sense of identity. The conference runs through Wednesday. AFN starts on Thursday.