Eleven months out of 12, Elders and Youth Council members from the First Alaskans Institute meet over the phone. Their annual conference is a chance to finally gather in person, along with nearly 1,000 other Alaska Natives, to exchange stories and lessons between generations and tribes.
This year, councilmembers and attendees are conferencing from home, from Southeast to the North Slope. Kenaitze elder Sharon Isaak is attending from Soldotna, where she prerecorded a demonstration on crafting moose-ear booties, one of the myriad workshops taking place virtually between Sunday and Wednesday.
Isaak was elected on a one-year term to represent Southcentral Alaska on the Elders and Youth Council, along with fellow Kenaitze elder Roberta Oskolkoff and three youth members. This isn’t Isaak’s first time at the conference, but it is her first time attending electronically.
“It is an absolute tremendous experience to be at Elders and Youth," she said. "You meet new people and see friends that you haven’t seen for a year. That’s the power of gathering together, one time a year, that gives us the strength to carry on throughout the year. But we didn’t have that this year. I can’t hug somebody or touch them, but I’m seeing them, and in my heart, I’m loving on ’em.”
Southcentral youth representative Danielle Mills, from Ninilchik, is a first-time member of the council. Like Isaak, she’s found even this nontraditional version of the conference to be salient.
“It’s all just been such a whirlwind of emotions the last couple days," Mills said. "This conference makes me so emotional. I love hearing the stories that the elders tell. It makes me think so much about our culture and our heritage. I just love it.”
One of her favorite parts of the conference so far has been yesterday’s “Warming of the Hands” ceremony, which served as the introductory event to the conference.
“There were a handful of elders that told a bunch of different stories and I always love listening to our elders speak," Mills said. They have the most amazing stories about their lives and in each of their stories, they tell a little life lesson that you can take home with you.”
Isaak said it is meaningful to see the older and younger generations swap stories and lessons.
“The continuity between the generations is tremendous. I hear and feel the young people learning and being open to what was in the past and then they carry on for the future," she said.
The council meets every month via phone. Mills said the youth on the council have additional meetings apart from the elders, where they can be goofier with one another.
Council conversations have been particularly powerful for Isaak as COVID-19 continues to impact Alaska Native communities disproportionately.
“It is a very emotional time for me because I travel via the phone to all these Native villages in Alaska," Isaak said. And I glean from them, I hear their hearts, I listen to what they’re enduring through COVID. Not having the flights come in except for main subsistence for food or medical. Because if the virus comes to a very small village, it could impact them and ramifications would be horrific. So the isolation, you hear of the isolation, and yet, we are perseverers — I keep using that word — because we join every month together and it gives us strength.”