Students make statewide connections at Elders & Youth Conference

Ten Alaska Native youth from the Wrangell School District learned about their heritage and made connections with the statewide Native community at the Elders & Youth Conference in Anchorage last month.

The event, which featured cultural and educational workshops, speeches, healing circles, a talent show and more, is a chance for Native youth to learn about democratic processes and leadership skills. This year, its theme was Woosht Guganéixh, which translates from Tlingit to “let it be that we heal each other.”

Tlingit teacher Virginia Oliver, Indian Education Act (IEA) Director DaNika Smalley and Activities Director Mike Hoyt accompanied the Wrangell students, who ranged from the sixth to 12th grades.

The conference, which started in 1984, is modeled after the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. In the late 1980s, it became the Elders & Youth conference, “where the energy and excitement of the youth (can be) guided by the wisdom of their elders,” according to the organization’s website.

This year’s event was held Oct. 15-18, before the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convened Oct. 19-21.

For student Bella Ritchie, Elders & Youth was “a very cool place to be at, where everyone felt accepted and respected.”

“I got to hear about a lot of Tlingit elders speak about their story and things they’ve been through in life,” she added.

Ritchie ran against a dozen other girls for one of the conference’s youth representative spots.

“I talked about wanting to change the sea otter hunting restrictions to help the Dungeness crab industry,” she said. Though she wasn’t elected, she’s glad that she ran and plans to run again next year.

Smalley and her daughter, McKenzie, both attended for the first time this year.

Though Smalley loved watching the students check out the job fair and join in the pickling workshop, her favorite parts were the keynote speeches.

Quannah Chasinghorse, who gave the youth keynote speech on Oct. 17, is an Indigenous actor and model from the Han Gwich’in of Eagle Village, Alaska, and the Sicangu/Oglala Lakota Tribes of South Dakota. She has appeared on the covers of Vogue and Elle and in an episode of the series “Reservation Dogs.”

Attending the conference and listening to speeches like these “provides opportunity” for Wrangell students, said Oliver. “(Chasinghorse) was at Elder Youth and now she’s a supermodel. I start asking them (my students) in eighth grade, where do you want to go to college? I think education is a way of opening the mind. What do you want to be?”

Chasinghorse’s remarks were “a really, really big moment for my child and myself,” said Smalley. But she was particularly moved by the message from the elder keynote speaker, Ilskyalas Delores Churchill on Oct. 16.

Churchill is a renowned Haida weaver, teacher and language speaker who makes hats, robes, baskets and regalia.

After her speech, there was “so much that goes through my head that I can’t even put into words,” said Smalley. “She’s an elder that has so much experience and has gone through so much. … Every little bit that she is able to pass on to us, I can only hope that my kids and my students … were able to remember what she said to us.”

“It was really wonderful to listen to her, Oliver added.

For Smalley, events like these are a way to Alaska Native youth to make intergenerational connections and learn about their heritage – and themselves.

“As the IEA director, it is my job to advocate for our students,” said Smalley. “Knowing that all over Alaska, we have had a lot of generational trauma and a lot of disconnect. We have students who don’t know very much about their heritage. They want to know, is the thing. Exposing them to things such as this, or celebration, the Native events that happen, they get to learn along with us. For me, I’m learning with them.”

Now that they’ve returned from the Elders & Youth Conference, the students will write about their experiences and present these essays to the school administration.


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