The Elders and Youth Conference kicked off in Anchorage today. This year’s theme is a call to action “Not in Our Smokehouse!”
A particular scent wafts out of the Dena’ina Convention Center Exhibit Hall these days.
“It smells like smoked fish!” exclaimed Elders and Youth participant Rochelle Adams as she stands outside the full-sized smokehouse that’s set up in the hall, visible from all angles. She says it makes her proud, and hungry.
“It represents so many things about our culture, and especially subsistence. And subsistence is so important because that’s what ties us to our land and our animals.”
Adams says she loves this year’s theme, “Not in Our Smokehouse,” because it melds modern, sassy comments with the sacred space of a smokehouse. She says it makes people laugh, but it also starts conversations.
Dewey Hoffman with First Alaskans says a teenager in Southeast Alaska at a basketball game first started saying it –a local version of “not in my house!” He says it struck the organizers as a good conversation starter.
“It shows a place of ownership. Our smokehouse is a metaphor for our communities. And even us as individuals, our own bodies, we have to maintain and protect what we have so we can stay strong and we have to take out what will weaken us and take us off path.”
In the convention center, people are posting papers to a bulletin board highlighting what shouldn’t be in their smoke houses, things like suicide, abuse, violence, drugs, and forgetting culture.
But for youth keynote speaker Lacayah Engebretson, the focus is on what should be used to build the next generation’s smokehouses: both traditional culture and modern adaptations.
“Take everything you can from the smokehouse you’ve already been in and every smokehouse you enter from here on out,” she told the packed convention hall during her speech. “And preserve it and keep and remember it when you build your own. And when you do build your own, go ahead and add mosquito net and any new adaptations we can make.”
In her own life, Engerbertson is already doing that by dancing and serving as a cultural interpreter. She says to build a strong community, individuals have to become ‘doers’.
They need “to avoid saying what should be done and more just doing it. It shouldn’t be ‘this change needs to be made’ it should be ‘how can I make that change personal in my life’ and do it on a smaller scale and hope to start a ripple effect.”
One young conference participant, Ariana Tumanuval, says she didn’t know what a smokehouse was. She grew up in Anchorage and says her grandma smokes fish in a small box. But her reaction to the house in the exhibit hall was universal.
“It smells good!”
She says doing something in your community can be as small as helping someone get a drink of water. “It means like if someone needs help, just get up and help them with it without being asked to do it.”
The Elders and Youth Conference continues through Wednesday morning.