By Erin Kirkland
For Senior Voice 

Elders, youth work together for active leadership


October 1, 2017

Eric Engman photo

Kaisa Reese was among the youth at the 2016 Elders and Youth Conference. The event takes place each year in conjunction with the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

Sometimes, it's best to just sit down and talk. Ask tough questions, listen to the answers with an open mind, and share opinions about the future. Young and old, facing each other in a platform of respect and openness, with outcomes possibly affecting the future of a generation.

The Elders and Youth Conference, organized by the First Alaskans Institute (FAI), is preparing for a 34th annual statewide event October 16-18 in Anchorage. Featuring a slate of contributors, supporters, and passionate young people and elders from around the state, the conference is more than an opportunity to reconnect, it's a distinct pathway to cultural identity.

Held just prior to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, the largest gathering of any Native people in the United States (, the Elders and Youth Conference brings delegates from each Alaska region with a shared purpose of actively bringing about an understanding of today's issues and challenges; it also promotes understanding among younger attendees that they will be recipients of the knowledge passed down from elders.

The theme for 2017 is "Part Land, Part Water - Always Native," and reflects the deep connection to the land upon which Alaska Native people have lived since time immemorial, says Jorie Ayyu Paoli, Vice President of and Indigenous Operations Director for First Alaskans Institute.

"It's a chance for collaboration," she said, in a way that links the indigenous people of Alaska to each other. "Elders sharing their knowledge with youth, the future stewards, to make Alaska a better place."

Not just a better place, Ayyu Paoli emphasized, but a valued place, one that requires a sense of responsibility and mutual respect that can come from a multi-day opportunity such as this.

Aiyana Shuler, 16, recalls attending the conference in 2016 and being impressed by the different points of view from both her peers and the elders sitting among them.

"It's one of the greatest benefits of going," she said. "It's a different perspective of our community, in a way teenagers normally wouldn't see." Plus, she added, people come from all around Alaska, "So you get to learn what's going on in all the different communities."

Kids and elders attend breakout sessions both within their own regional group and beyond, Ayyu Paoli said, working from frameworks of a common theme but also learning how to adjust platforms and solutions for their own unique community. Topics like education, social issues, humor, respect and future leadership opportunities come from a council of youth and elders, 28 in all, and discussions are ongoing and always full of emotion.

That unique sense of dynamic interaction is exactly what elders would like to see as the culture bearers of the next generation, says Danielle Riha, Alaska Native Law and Current Issues teacher at Anchorage's Alaska Native Cultural Charter School.

"This conference is a huge connection for my 7th/8th graders," Riha said. "They see what is out in the world and what happens when people with passion work together for each other."

Parent Mikan Outwater agrees. Her kids have actively participated in several conferences, often dancing during the sessions, and she finds it to be a tangible way to share their family's heritage beyond what the youngsters learn at school.

Sven Haakanson, Jr. photo

Elders Raphael and Vivian Jimmy share ideas at last year's AFN Elders and Youth Conference.

"For the kids, it's important because they see firsthand that people are living the values we (adults, teachers, elders) talk about all the time - respect, honor, humor. And for the elders, it's a chance to be sociable and pass down their wisdom."

The conference opens Sunday, Oct. 15 with a "Warming of the Hands Gathering," to introduce participants and set up regional breakout sessions. On Monday, Oct. 16, "Chin'an: A Night of Cultural Celebration," highlights the talents of individuals and groups throughout Alaska, and is a favorite among attendees.

The theme of "Part Land, Part Water - Always Native" was crafted using the contributions from current Elders and Youth Council members, First Alaskans Institute Staff, and other members of the community. That, Ayyu Paoli said, is why it works.

"No matter where we live, we are one, in Alaska. This is a Native place."

Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer living and working in Anchorage.


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