IndiGenius: Connecting conference attendees with craft, heritage

IndiGenius — a play on the word indigenous — is an offering of afternoon workshops at the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders and Youth Conference this week.

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Xeetli.eesh Lyle James, a group leader for the Woosh.ji.een dancers in Juneau, teaches a small crowd of young people during a break out session at the Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)
Xeetli.eesh Lyle James, a group leader for the Woosh.ji.een dancers in Juneau, teaches a small crowd of young people during a break out session at the Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

“We have storytelling, we have drum making, we have weaving, and in some cases you’ll have elders teaching youth and in other cases youth teaching elders,” said Emily Tyrell, sustainability director for the First Alaskans Institute. “It’s this transference of knowledge whether it’s elders to youth or youth to elders.”

Two years ago, The CIRI Foundation helped FAI acquire more funding for the workshops. Conference participants had asked in previous years for more opportunities to connect and learn through art, and so that’s what the extra funding went to.

Tyrell said it’s important for the youth to embrace their culture’s strengths.

The CIRI Foundation’s President and CEO Susan Anderson (right) and Program Officer Nadia Sethi. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)
The CIRI Foundation’s President and CEO Susan Anderson (right) and Program Officer Nadia Sethi. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

“Oftentimes we hear this message that our people are overloaded with these terrible statistics: high suicide rates, domestic violence,” she said. “Yes, those statistics are true, but there is also a message that we bring forward through our work that we are a beautiful vibrant people and we’ve been on these lands for the last 10,000 years.”

Susan Anderson, president and CEO of The CIRI Foundation, said the idea is that traditional arts give elders and youth the chance to talk about current issues and concerns in the context of an activity their ancestors also took part in.

“It’s about helping people know who they are culturally and through heritage as well as helping them to then succeed in their educational path,” Anderson said.

One of the first agreements attendees at the annual Elders and Youth Conference make is to participate. “In every chair, a leader,” is a mantra repeated throughout by institute staff. Attending IndiGenius workshops is a step toward fulfilling the mantra.

The agreement means a number of things: It calls on participants to actively engage with others and to listen carefully, to speak respectfully and to be open to learning. It guides participants through a series of discussions and activities aimed at fostering communication between the generations and instilling confidence in the younger ones.

There are dozens of workshops to choose from and participation is not limited to Alaska Natives or just elders and youth. Tyrell says the general public is encouraged and welcome to join the conference, which goes until Wednesday morning.