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Alaska Federation of Natives convention set to launch Oct. 18 with veteran's exhibit

Kingikmiut Singers & Dancers performing at 2023 AFN
Kingikmiut Singers & Dancers performing at 2022 AFN convention

When Anchorage hotels fill up at the start of October, traffic picks up, and stores and restaurants do brisk business, it’s a sign that the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention is around the corner.

Native corporations and tribal organizations, as well as state and federal agencies, have already begun to meet ahead of AFN. Many of these gatherings are spread-out over the entire month of October. Delegates and their families also arrive early for the Elders and Youth Conference, but AFN officially gets underway on the evening of Wednesday, October 18.

Normally the convention opens on Thursday morning, but Nicole Stoops, an organizer for this year’s event, says AFN has set aside Wednesday to honor veterans. An exhibit that features the work of Bill Hess will open. Hess has photographed Alaska Native veterans for more than 40 years.

“There are many in black and white. There are many in color,” Stoops said. “but they’re very emotional when you look at them. It’s a beautiful story to be told.”

Three Native leaders, who have served in the military, will share their own stories – Emil Notti, one of the founders of AFN, former Alaska State Senator Jerry Ward, and Benno Cleveland, who earned a Purple Heart medal in Viet Nam.

Benno Cleveland, an Inupiat from Fairbanks, will speak at the opening event of AFN honoring veterans. Cleveland served in Viet Nam and received a Purple Heart.
Photo by Bill Hess, Courtesy of AFN
Benno Cleveland, an Inupiat from Fairbanks, will speak at the opening event of AFN honoring veterans. Cleveland served in Viet Nam and received a Purple Heart.

Also, that evening, AFN will premiere “One with the Whale,” a documentary that tells the story of a St. Lawrence Island teenager, the youngest person ever in the community to land a whale. What was a proud moment for the village soured, after environmental activists unleashed a stream of hateful attacks online. Stoops says, there were even death threats.

“To have that kind of backlash, really,” Stoops said, “it shows his emotional turmoil, and how his family suffered through that but also persevered through.”

Stoops says the film will set the tone for the convention and its theme, “Our Ways of Life,” which will explore how values are shaped by a culture’s relationship with the land.

“We have diverse cultures, diverse languages, but the core values are still there,” she said. “The cultural values that our ways of life are still very similar -- and how we can work together, especially when it comes to those obstacles that we face as Alaska Natives.”

Each region of the state will share how the land and its resources have shaped their traditions, followed by panel discussions, in part to heal some of the rifts that occurred last year, when a bitter debate broke out on the last day of the convention over the Western Alaska salmon crisis, causing several organizations to break with AFN.

AFN remains the state’s largest convention, drawing delegates and their families from across the state. AFN estimates that the annual gathering has 6,000 attendees. AFN is also broadcast statewide and is webcast to 70 countries, worldwide.

This year, it will be held at the Dena’ina Center in downtown Anchorage from Oct. 18 to 21. The convention will officially be called to order on Thursday morning, Oct. 19. AFN is open to the public. Most sessions are free, except the evening Native dance performances. The Native Arts Fair is one of the most popular events at AFN. This year, it has expanded beyond the main exhibit area, to include a second floor – but there is still a long waiting list for vendors.

KNBA radio will carry live coverage of AFN starting at 8:00 a.m. October 18, 2023

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.