Although many Alaska Natives on Kodiak Island are busy catching and putting up fish right now, many are also making plans for the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, scheduled for the third week of October in Anchorage. But due to the Covid-19 crisis, AFN organizers say the state’s largest convention may be different than in past years.
AFN says meetings are underway with its executive board of directors, state health officials and representatives from the Dena’ina Center — to discuss how the convention might take place if members aren’t able to gather in person.
AFN communications director, Jeff Silverman, says the health and safety of AFN members, conference presenters and the public are a top priority. Silverman expects plans to be announced sometime in August.
Kodiak’s Rita Stevens, who serves on the board of directors for the Koniag Native Corporation, has mixed feelings about this news.
While she’s heard elders say it’s important to stay safe and protect villages, she says AFN won’t be the same if it goes completely virtual.
“It’s a time when we come together,” Stevens said. “and the big emphasis with AFN, is, not only learn the political and legislative issues, but to definitely reconnect with families and friends.”
Even so, Stevens says elders have good reason to be worried, because they are old enough to remember stories about the Spanish Flu epidemic, which swept through Alaska between 1918 and 1919.
“In the Spanish flu, people were wiped out,” Stevens said. “Villages were wiped out, and there were many orphans left.”
Stevens says she’s heard stories from her mom about how the Baptist mission on Woody Island took in many of these children.
She also lost members of her own family.
“My great grandfather and great grandmother died quite young from the Spanish Flu,” said Stevens, who worries about the safety of elders. “They are precious to us.”
But Stevens says she’ll miss seeing the dancers from different regions in their regalia. She pays close attention to the beaded headdresses from the Kodiak area, which she believes can’t be fully appreciated in a virtual world.
“It’s all very visual, and it’s just flat on a screen,” Stevens said. “It’s just not the same thing, and it’s using all your senses.”
AFN has provided live broadcasts of the convention on television and on the web for years, so that’s not new, Stevens says. In fact, AFN has pioneered coverage of live events in Alaska, so she’s curious about the technology AFN will use if the convention becomes a completely virtual experience.
She also worries that some rural communities won’t have the broadband capabilities to fully participate – but says outlying communities on Kodiak Island are ahead of the game in many ways, because Native corporations and tribal organizations are used to meeting by video and tele-conference, as well as applying new technology in creative ways to transcend their geographical isolation.
Stevens also hopes to hear soon about plans for the Elders and Youth Conference, which takes place immediately before AFN, a gathering which also has widespread participation from Kodiak Island.
The First Alaskans Institute, which organizes the event, says it’s also in discussions about how to cope with the Covid-19 threat.
Karla Booth of First Alaskans says, like AFN, it’s also carefully considering its options and will announce a decision once they are fully weighed.