As the Alaska Native Studies Conference closing banquet came to an end, community member George Holly serenaded attendees with a song about “a good Native springtime” in the Athabaskan language, Deg Xinag. He urged fellow Natives to stand up and have their “springtime.”
His voice rang out, “Our culture is still with us. We are still alive and breathing. It’s a good and beautiful thing.”
Dozens of dignitaries, artists and educators from both Alaska and around the world joined in the first UA Alaska Native Studies Conference, hosted by the Alaska Native Studies (ANS) Council. With over 50 separate workshops and events offered to the public, the four-day series covered an array of topics relating to indigenous, cultural and academic education. Events were held in various locations, from on campus to the Anchorage Museum to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Provost and Vice Chancellor Elisha Baker said he was amazed at the sheer volume of people who registered for conference workshops.
“At first we thought maybe 50 people, and then we ended up with 250 people,” Baker said.
He also said he looks forward to future annual conferences and said the University of Alaska Southeast will probably host next year’s event.
Expressions through art
During the Smithsonian Spotlight at the Anchorage Museum, Allison Warden, a world-renowned Inupiat Eskimo
performance artist and rapper, presented a black and white slide show of her family and culture in a soft-spoken voice.
Suddenly, hip-hop beats erupted over the sound system. Warden jumped up and started to spit out rhymes about cultural identity. Her modern expression brought generations of the past and present together full circle.
The panel, “Arts and Indigenous Alaska Native Cultures,” featured current movers and shakers in the Alaska arts scene, such as independent contractor and filmmaker Anna Hoover.
Hoover spoke about the First Light-Artists project, which involves tuition-free workshops taught by internationally acclaimed artists.
Dawn Biddison of the Arctic Studies Center spoke with tears in her eyes as she urged people to look past the “stereotypical art” and appreciate the expressive art Alaska Natives put out about their culture and people.
Renowned Alaska Native playwright, Jack Dalton shared details of upcoming projects, which include reaching out to other indigenous groups around the world to express views through arts and entertainment.
Keynote speaker Graham Hingangaroa Smith, CEO and vice chancellor of indigenous university Te Whare Wananga O Awanuiarangi in New Zealand, met with students on three separate occasions to discuss elements of indigenous theory and cultural revolution. Students of varied backgrounds, from Irish to Samoan, felt an instant connection to the themes. Smith sparked within students the drive to learn more about their own indigenous cultures and values.
As the “Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council” panel convened, human services student
Samantha Des Armo recalled her personal experiences.
“When my mother grew up, it was taboo to speak our language and you never spoke it. So because of how she was raised, we never spoke it,” Des Armo said.
The panel was a reminder that as seasons change, so do perspectives.
During the “Stories of Educational Persistence — Voices from the Villages” panel, school administrators from throughout Alaska shared personal stories of growing up as an Alaska Native in the school system and how those experiences are weaved into their work today.
“Elders come in at noon, and you’ll hear them speaking the Yup’ik language with the children,” Dana Bartman, associate principal and counselor for the Southwest Region School District, said.
Bartman’s statement rang true to the theme, “identity,” which is woven into today’s educational goals.
“Identity” was reiterated during the conference closing banquet, when the King Island Dance Group urged the audience to join an open-invitation dance.
UA faculty danced proudly alongside community members. In the middle of the stage was a vision which seemed to echo the sentiments of a “good Native springtime” — little Alaska Native children who danced along with their elders.