This year, the Elders and Youth Conference went virtual for the first time in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s meeting was a little different, conducted mostly through pre-recorded messages and live Zoom calls. However, both keynote addresses highlighted the desire to keep thousands of years of Native culture moving forward, pandemic or not.
The four-day annual meeting seeks to strengthen the bonds between the oldest and youngest generations of Indigneous people, with Alaska Native people from around the state participating.
Speaking over a Zoom call, Arctic Village elder Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert, who is Gwich’in, spoke of lessons he’d learned from elders throughout his life. In his roughly 35-minute keynote, he touched on his love of Native food, the importance of being prepared for winter and the importance of keeping Native languages alive.
He says it is vital to make sure that younger Alaska Natives can continue to experience their cultures and ways of life.
“We are very lucky to have all the resources we have in Alaska, but this summer there’s no fish in the Yukon,” Gilbert said. “Slowly, we get into a lot of change. I know it, since the last maybe two years.”
This year’s commercial salmon runs in the Yukon River, Kotzebue and Bering Straits regions were all considerably lower than in past years. While there’s no definitive reason why, some have speculated it may be due to a warming Arctic climate.
Additionally, Gilbert discussed the importance of safety in the face of the pandemic.
“I hope young people listen to me when you go home, a lot of them going to cities,” Gilbert said. “We need you for the future. Make sure you take care of yourself. Wash your hands.”
Gilbert says he’s eager for the day when the virus blows over.
“So we want someday, hopefully, we might get together again to talk to each other face to face,” Gilbert said.
While the Elder keynote address focused on passing down traditional knowledge, the Youth address took aim at blood quantum. Blood quantum is an imposed standard of measuring “Indian blood,” often used to denote whether someone is eligible for Tribal enrollment. Some Tribes and federal agencies use blood quantum to also determine eligibility to participate in some cultural activities.
Fifteen-year-old Kiley Kanat’s Burton is Eyak, Aleut, Inupiaq and Koyukon Athabascan and is from Cordova.
Since she was 5, she grew up beading and sewing seal skin, learning from her mother and aunt. However, under some blood quantum standards, Burton says she’s less than a quarter Native, and unable to participate in some cultural activities.
“Many members of the Alaska Native community are deeply concerned with the growing numbers of young tribal members who are unable to hunt or utilize marine mammals,” Burton said. “Hunting marine mammals, proper hide preparation and skin sewing are essential components to Alaska Native culture.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act limits hunting and harvesting of marine mammals to only Indigenous people with at least one-quarter Native blood quantum. Additionally, most regional shareholder corporations require a one-quarter blood quantum to enroll and receive shares.
There are estimates that roughly 60 percent of Alaska Natives living in and around the Gulf of Alaska don’t meet that criteria. Burton says that she’s worried for the future for herself and other Native descendants.
“With blood quantum still used as an identifier of Native people, they will one day lose their status and recognition,” Burton said. “The moment when tribal members are no longer Native enough, based on colonial tactics that were used to assimilate, is the moment Indigneous people are bred out of existence.”
Burton ended her speech by urging others to speak out against regulations that limit who can identify as Native. For her part, she says she plans on educating her children one day about where they came from.
The 37th Annual Elders and Youth Conference wrapped Wednesday with the reading and passing of several resolutions. This year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Convention will take place starting Thursday, and is also virtual this year.
Tripp Crouse with KNBA contributed with this report.