A little boy dances on stage, following the movements of his dad. Artists with homes separated by thousands of miles sit side by side and chat. The hallways are filled with thousands of people from all parts of Alaska. Despite the distances involved it looks, more often than not, like a simple meeting of friends.
This is a visit to the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. AFN returns to Anchorage this year Oct. 15-17. Combined with the preceding First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference, this month is one of the best for a deep dive into Alaska Native affairs and heritage.
Several evenings of cultural performances known as Quyana Alaska fill the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center with music. First added in 1982, Quyana’s stage has shared thousands of songs and countless stories. Hundreds of indigenous dance and music groups from across Alaska – and beyond – have performed in the 30 years since.
The AFN Convention is also known for its popular Alaska Native Customary Art Show, renowned as one of the best places to find Alaska Native and Native American artwork. More than 170 artist booths fill the ground floor Expo Hall. Traditional crafts stand shoulder to shoulder with contemporary works. Parkas, masks, carvings and beadwork share the floor with cell phone cases with traditional Tlingit motifs. It’s a great place to shop, meet the artists and learn about the skills necessary to create works in a wide array of media.
A first-time visitor to AFN might gravitate to the song, dance and art, but there’s much more going on. A surprising number of the keynotes, speeches and sessions are open, and the public is welcome to observe. Alaska leaders from Barrow to Ketchikan and the governor’s office to Capitol Hill are all under one roof. If you’re curious about Alaska affairs or want to hear many different perspectives on the state, there are few better forums. Ketchikan weaver Delores Churchill and her grandson, carver Donald Varnell, present this year’s keynote on the morning of Oct. 15. The 2015 conference theme, “Heroes in our Homeland” seeks to recognize Alaskans making a difference in communities statewide; heroes that shape the world around them. Sessions that follow will shape policy priorities for Alaska Native communities, and touch on the contemporary issues facing Alaskans.
Step into the Dena’ina Center this month and gain a better understanding of the cultures that have shaped Alaska for thousands of years and continue to set it a course for the state for the future.