‘Our ancestors are our fire’: Elders and Youth conference kicks off in Anchorage

Elder Ugiaqtaq Wesley Aiken delivering his keynote address at the 2018 Elders and Youth conference in the Denai’ina Center. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Day one of the annual Elders and Youth conference wrapped up in Anchorage today. The annual conference precedes the Alaska Federation of Natives convention each fall, designed to strengthen inter-generational connections and share indigenous knowledge around the state.

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In front of a crowded ballroom in the downtown Dena’ina Center, Patuk Glenn gave an introduction to this year’s theme.

Our ancestors are our fire,” Glenn announced in Inupiaq and English.

The elder keynote address came from Ugiaqtaq Wesley Aiken, age 92, who was introduced as the oldest man in Utqiagvik. A whaler, reindeer herder, tradesman and community leader throughout his life, Aiken told young members of the audience to seek out the tools that would best equip them to support themselves in modern life. In his time that meant hunting, and learning whatever trades he could in his community.

“I wish I had higher education myself. But I tried to make living with what I can do in my hometown,” Aiken said. “I am a carpenter. I’m a mechanic. Heavy equipment operator.”

Generally Elders and Youth is a less overtly political event than AFN. But this year, state politics looms large. A group that formed last year, Native Peoples Action, presented on efforts to mobilize indigenous votes in the upcoming November elections. During a panel on Alaska Natives entering state government, Julianna Clock told the crowd she’d been able to channel anger over racial disparities she saw growing up in Kaltag into action working as an analyst for the governor’s office.

“The knowledge we gain from the people who life us up, from our parents and our grandparents, our elders and our ancestors, is just as valuable as the western certificates that we gain in schools,” Clock said. “And it’s important to get those, too. We are equal to all the people in those rooms. And we have a seat at the table. And we have a place.”

Governor Bill Walker speaking at the Elders and Youth conference in the Denai’ina Center. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Though far from a campaign stump speech, Governor Bill Walker’s address touched on several recent events. Walker noted how much he’s learned about indigenous languages since coming into office. But says signing a recent administrative order on the issue was overshadowed by the funeral in Kotzebue for 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr just a day before.

“I celebrate all the great things that happen in Alaska while I’m governor, but I take responsibility for everything that’s bad that happens in Alaska because I’m governor,” Walker said. “I take that very seriously. And so as I sat there through that service, that two-and-a-half hours in Koztebue, all I could think of was what could I have done differently. What could I have done as governor to make sure that hadn’t happened, make sure that never happens again.”

Walker is in a tough three-way race for re-election where recent polling has Republican candidate Mike Dunleavy at a significant advantage.

The Elders and Youth Conference wraps up Wednesday.