Ilisagvik reflects on Native conference
Four students out and four students back safe and sound. I love it when a plan comes together! But had they learned anything? That was the question.
Earlier this semester, I took four Iḷisaġvik students on a field trip to the Elders & Youth Conference in Anchorage. Our group included myself, Aqamak Akpik, Pamela Balanza, Forrest Ahkiviana, and Karl Carl. All of us fell somewhere in between youth and elder status, which would make things interesting. Mostly, our goal was to learn what we could about the variety of Native Alaska communities. A chance to listen to the lessons Elders would be sharing with youngsters at this conference would provide an excellent opportunity to learn about precisely that subject.
Students attended the general sessions and workshops, served Elders lunch and assisted with a presentation by the college. We also visited both the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Native Heritage Center, both of which held a number of interesting exhibits.
In the weeks since, our student reflections have been trickling in. I'm impressed with what they have to say about it. The overall gathering appears to have uniquely impacted each of them. Exposure to interior Athabascans, Tlingit, Haida, and other "off-slope" Indigenous peoples left quite an impression. Carl was particularly impressed by Fred John Jr., the son of Katie John, who gave a wonderful presentation on his efforts to promote subsistence activities. He was also pleased with a workshop in which participants learned to make a salve from natural ingredients.
I think he even managed to haul away a jar of this stuff as they passed it out at the end of the session. Balanza enjoyed helping with the college presentation; she would encourage participants, "Get Up! Stand up! And Play Family Feud!" She enjoyed learning more about the language and Iñupiaq values. Akpik expressed pride in a young relative who spoke in favor of teaching more I?piaq materials in the classroom. Ahkiviana received, with enthusiasm, news of the newly-released video game called "Never Alone" featuring North Slope Alaska Native themes, but I think the workshops were his favorite part of the whole conference.
In the off hours, I dragged the students to some of the nicer restaurants around town, and they dragged me to a few interesting diners of their own choosing. Somewhere in there, Ahkiviana and I even managed to teach Balanza how to bowl...then she beat us.
So, yes, we found time to have some fun, but we also had time to talk about events at the conference. In previous years, I am told the conference had been geared toward a broader range of students. This year, much of the conference seemed to be aimed at a target audience considerably younger than our group. As they were also far too young to fill the role of Elders, our students often (though not always) found themselves taking on the role of observers. I was impressed by the critical thinking skills our students showed.
One theme occupied a number of our conversations; the role of outsiders in the education of Alaska Natives. The often destructive policies educational institutions imposed on Native peoples were familiar enough to our students, and this provided a common theme in much of the dialogue at the conference. Many of those present are old enough to have suffered through the overtly assimilationist policies of a previous era. In some ways, their comments to the children are actually a response to their old teachers, a means of talking back to those who once hurt them, and a chance to instill in a new generation the importance of values once attacked openly by the very school-system now entrusted to the education of those same youth.
What did surprise me was the sensitivity some of our students showed to others' comments about non-Natives. Our students embraced the celebration of Native values, but they also wanted to see this done with a degree of sensitivity sometimes lacking in the comments they'd heard. It was an interesting moment, and a chance to see how our own students might address some of these same issues if given the chance. Students at Iḷisaġvik College have surprised us before with their penchant for inclusiveness and generosity toward others.
In the end, I found myself wondering where these concerns would take our students over the course of their lives. When the time comes for them to take their place as elders and instruct the youth to come, I wonder if some of the ideas they've formed in this trip will find their way into that moment. I hope so, and I hope it helps.
All in all, I'd say it was a good trip. We spent the last night in our hotel. I taught Balanza and Ahkiviana a card game called "Unexploded Cow" and we played it while watching a movie...Balanza won that one, too.
By Dan Wall is a Sociology Instructor for Iḷisaġvik College.