I woke up comfortable, warm, and well-slept after yesterday’s long haul in the cold. I showered quickly, dressed, and grabbed all of my presentation belongings, then began the mile-long trek towards the Conference to meet Josh. I walked past the Anchorage Mall and a courtyard strung up with blue Christmas lights. The light was still hours away. By just after 7am, I had reached the Dena’ina Center. I walked in, waited in line for the registration, and received my tags as well as a bag, some general information packets, and a souvenir mug. Josh and his friends were just behind me.
“Here, you need some of these!” Josh pushed a bunch of tags into my hands. He had grabbed a rainbow of tags for himself. As we rode the escalator up two stories through the Center, we laughed, peeled the backs off of the ribbons, and attached them in a chain to our tags. Mine included “General Member”, “Research Presenter”, and “Newbie”, thanks to Josh. Then we realized my school was listed, but not my tribe. Josh laughed at me. Doug joined us and said, “Don’t worry, they spelled Navajo wrong on mine!!” Indeed, he pointed to his tag which read “Navaho”. “Who made these??” I laughed as we entered the main doors to find our breakfast.
This was our first time in the Dena’ina Center. It was overwhelmingly large. The entrance had a beautiful mobile of miniature Alaska animals cut out of white stone. Artwork framed the windows down some hallways, each stained glass piece reflecting Alaskan native culture. The main conference room itself was absolutely enormous. We filed in to find multiple buffets and a sea of tables. At the front wall of the room were several stages pushed together. Behind the podium was a wall decoration that reminded me of stretched drum skins with a kaleidoscope glow cast on them. I got food and took a seat with the Menominee Nation, awestruck by the volumes of people filling the room.
Most of the people around me were dressed business casual. Some were adorned with traditional jewelry or hairpieces. The majority of the people had dark hair and dark eyes, but some didn’t look Native at all. There was a fair share of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned individuals. They were mostly from the eastern tribes. This makes sense, since the eastern tribes experienced the most European dilution over the last couple centuries. People slowly took their seats to eat and, before long, a color guard was brought out to begin the ceremony. Native representatives were brought to lead each military branch in the ceremony. On their jackets were rank pins as well as indicators of their individual tribes. They marched onto the stage and the Opening Ceremony officially began.
The dawn coming up over the mountains visible from my poster location.
The morning was full of different speakers for the course of a few hours. I ran out at one point with Brennan to pin up my poster in the long display hallway. First, we sat through the keynote address. It was the typical “Welcome everyone” and “This year has been our most successful year yet” spiels. Then we watched the student spirit-stick competition. Basically, it consisted of the different chapter regions competing for the loudest cheers from the crowd. The student representatives themselves were an eclectic mix, some obnoxiously loud, others quiet, kind, and ordinary, and some with outrageous southern accents. Although the southern accents won over the crowd, the prize was given to the home region containing Alaska.
The last part of the ceremony consisted of the tribal leaders and AISES partners giving speeches. I sat through endless talks from ordinary people who encouraged us to work hard – and celebrate our Native heritage. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking how bizarre it was to be told to unite as one when, for so many centuries, we were far from being one Nation. We were enemies at war. Just because we had to assimilate as “Natives” and be forced on reservations, why did we come together like this? Why were we standing here today, broken and yet still strong? I was only asking these questions so intently to myself because a friend had recently provoked the thoughts within me. When she learned about me coming to the conference and asked about my opinions on Native rights, she very bluntly asked me “Why do you care? Why do you care what happens to the people on reservations? Why don’t they just leave anyway and have an ordinary life? Why are you so bent on preserving your culture?” Her question was so ridiculously naïve and disturbing, yet I struggled to find the correct answer. The conference gave this answer to me.
One of the leaders of AISES got up and spoke about the society and how wonderful it is for finding intelligence and encouraging its growth amongst our people, to inspire the youth to make a difference. “We have come here from all over, with different backgrounds and stories. We have come to remember our ancestors and to celebrate who we are!” Then her voice dropped for just seconds long enough to say, “Although we will never forget what has been done to us and what has brought us together here today, we will be strong and move beyond the past. But we will not forget. We will use it to make us stronger, to unite us towards a better goal! We are Native people and, as Natives, we know better than anyone else how to put the sorrowful times behind us and to grow stronger from it! We know how to adapt and that is what is so lovely about our theme, ADAPT-ability! We are adapters! We believe in saving our Earth, in paying more for energy that is greener, in working hard to do what we know is right, no matter what the financial consequences are to us. We owe this to our world and we will continue to adapt to every challenge that is presented to us. We have come here as a Native force and we will continue to work as one, towards our common goal of preserving our planet!”
I realized how right she was. That is what has been done. Why do I care? I care because these are MY PEOPLE, no matter how great or small my blood quantum! Why don’t people leave the reservations? Because it is their homes! Because we have had everything else taken from us, so we cling to what we have left and are better people for it! Ordinary life? Define ordinary life anyway! And why do I want to preserve my culture? Because it is my identity, like it is the identity of all these people who have worked hard over the last year to earn scholarships, do research, make arrangements, and save the money to come clear to Anchorage to celebrate these very things! Hearing the lady speak made my friend’s questions sound less and less educated. I realized how little outsiders know about who we really are. We are not the Hollywood Indian you see in the movies. We are real people. We are survivors.
Another speaker, an Elder, got on stage. He was calm and well-composed. He casually brought up Hurricane Sandy and, as horrible as the things he were saying were, one couldn’t help but laugh. His view on life was so brutally honest and realistic that his words were so plain and yet effective. “The Earth,” he was saying, “is a living being! To think otherwise is to be foolish. Mother Nature is no fool. Man can live his life and do as he pleases, but he is killing Her! He has no respect for Her, but She will always have the upper hand. Just look at Hurricane Sandy. I pray for those in trouble, but it is man’s fault! Mother Nature says, Look at all of these people… I’ll take a few thousand, BOOM! Dead. There we go, that’s better now. Better balance. Mother Nature is merciless and She doesn’t care! If we abuse Her, she will bite back. She feels everything because She is alive, and we cannot live without Her! The energy we use, the gas emissions we cause, this has got to stop! And that is why we call on you, our young Natives, who love Mother Earth and understand her value. We call on you to solve the problems of the future and to protect the land that your ancestors kept here for you. It is your duty. If we live so uncaringly,… well, I fear for the future of our children.”
He was so right, every word. His speech made me realize that this was no sustainability event, and yet saving the Earth and going green was at the heart of every speech, every motive, every project. It is just the natural Native way of thinking. We are all environmentalists because our ancestors lived on this land and we are not so far removed from our history as to forget that.
The next speaker was a Kodiak anthropologist with some touching stories. He told about masks recover during WWII by strangers who didn’t even know the value of the masks, but just suspected the importance they’d have to a people. The masks were moved from a town before the museum was bombed and stored in a nearby castle. We now have the privilege of seeing them back in their homeland of Alaska. The man also told us of his experiences rediscovering the path of his ancestors. He talked about camping in Siberia in similar housing and how unbearable it was. Then he brought up the folklore of Captain Cook, the explorer who sailed to Alaska centuries ago. He read books published by the Europeans and Americans. They were stories about visits made and seemed innocent enough until he picked apart the story and repainted it with cultural custom. The story became a vivid nightmare. Here’s an example of one piece: “In this section, Captain Cook tells about visiting a hut with families inside. He says they had lovely gestures with the women, who were dressed uncivilized like the others. He says the rooms were simple and plain and unsophisticated. He says, as they visited, the men stood around silently and observed, and the children were not friendly… Sounds like a simple description, right? Well let’s pick it apart. First of all, the descriptions of what were likely a beautifully constructed hut with local artwork and baskets have been watered down in a lack of appreciation for Native culture. And the reactions of the people in the room? This is so simple. These men arrived with guns. What would the men and children do besides stand and watch as Captain Cook and his crew raped the women? Because that’s what they’re describing. They raped them. These stories are full of nothing but fear, suppression, and the misunderstanding of culture.”
What one doesn’t understand, one fears. And what one fears, one destroys.
The man quickly turned this around to insist that, despite the horrors presented to the people in these stories, they did not acknowledge their being cast into starvation and troubles and, instead, adapted. They remain proud and successful peoples to this day. “In fact,” he said, “we have uncovered numerous artifacts.” He showed us a picture of a boat with hair attached. “Imagine, this hair holds the spirit of a warrior. That is why hair is used to adorn someone’s possessions. Riding in this canoe, you could feel the power of that ancient warrior and his bold spirit inside.” Then he showed us pictures of other tribal men. “These people,” he continued, “are from the Kiksadi tribe in Sitka. They were our mortal enemies for years. I recently came in contact with some members after studying the few Kodiak songs that remain in our memory from our ancestors’ oral traditions. These men approached me and asked, ‘Would you like to know more of your songs? The songs you have lost?’ The Kiksadi then sung six whole songs that had been learned by their ancestors during conflict and contact in the years before. The songs were not forgotten for over a century. The Kiksadi, once our enemy, gave us the gift of six ancient songs. That is the magic of this world and how we all hold tradition dear enough to preserve it all.”
I reflected for a long time on what these speeches gave me. I now knew who I am and why I am proud to be it. I knew the importance of the planet to our people. I also learned the extent of naiveté in the world, and yet the lengths people will go to save tradition that they do not personally hold. I learned how important culture is and how it defines not just yourself but those around you.
This conference is going to be awesome.