For the Interior Native community, meeting the seasons traditionally comes with dog mushing, moose hide tanning, harvesting plants for food and medicine, and celebrating. Now, everyone can glimpse at these culture elements in a new local speaker program called “Our People Speak.”
Local Native organization Denakkanaaga partnered with the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center to host monthly virtual events where Native elders and leaders talk about aspects of traditional Alaska Native culture.
“We share our stories because we think it’s important to know what we experienced ourselves,” said one of the speakers, Marie Yaska, an elder from Huslia. “Just so people know what it used to be like back then. And it’s fun to talk about fun times.”
Some of the knowledge the elders hold is being lost, and the local Native community is eager to preserve what they can, said Sharon McConnell, the executive director of Denakkanaaga, a nonprofit organization that serves as the voice for Native elders in the Doyon, Limited and Tanana Chiefs Conference regions.
“We really want to share that history we have in our region, and also educate people in our Native community about our traditions, our culture,” she said.
The pandemic made the events more timely, said Tanana Chiefs Conference Culture and Camp Manager Shannon Erhart. With so many activities canceled and people unable to gather, using a virtual format became a way to get together and talk, reaching people in rural communities as well.
The events are themed around seasons, and in March, the episodes focused on spring carnivals and dog mushing,
“That’s always exciting, you know, when both events are held in the villages in communities after a long winter,” McConnell said.
Yaska and elder Andrew Jimmie from Minto were dog mushers in the past and were involved in spring carnivals, so they shared their history and stories in the March episodes. In April, the series will feature two events, one about spring traditions and one about traditional, distinctive clothing and ornaments.
“Springing Out - Next Generations Prepare for a New Season” will feature young people in the Native community speaking about why they are carrying on the traditions of preparing for the season. The event will be live at 6 p.m. April 20.
“What does it mean to get ready for spring? What traditionally did some of our elders used to do?” Erhart said “They would go to camp and wait for the ice to break up. They had to duck hunt and rely on the birds and the resources they had at that time. And they had to watch for rotten ice.”
The second program, “Smell of Moosehide – Traditional Regalia Today,” will talk about the elements of traditional clothing and its importance to youth in the present. The date is still being set.
In May, organizers want to focus on plants, whether for natural medicine or foods.
“Of course fishing will be part of that also,” Erhart said.
The project received sponsorship from Doyon, while Morris Thompson Visitor Center staff have taken the lead on production, McConnell said. Denakkanaaga and TCC are contributing the expertise, the elders, the knowledge and the contacts for getting the knowledge out there to the public.
Organizers hope the virtual events will be interesting to both Native communities and visitors who want to learn more about Alaska.
The idea of hosting virtual or hybrid events is not new to TCC and the Morris Thompson Center. In the past, they have tested the model with the help of the radio program Alaska Live. Some of their past videos received more than a hundred viewers for some videos, said Sara Harriger, executive director for the The Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center
However, with the pandemic, the value of virtual events became clear not only to organizers, but to sponsors as well, which supported the production, Harriger explained.
Of course, in-person events offer a different feeling and a different audience. In the future when the pandemic recedes, the series will become hybrid — both in-person and virtual — to keep them accessible for people in villages and to bring them to local people in Fairbanks, as well as visitors.
For the Native community, it’s really important that these programs are accessible for the future generations and are helping non-Native people understand Alaska better.
“For us, it is important to record this and preserve that history, that knowledge that our elders have,” McConnell said. “But it’s not just preserving that information; it’s also educating people about the Native community so they better understand what’s really important to us as Native people and for them to get a good sense of what it was like in our villages in the past, but also today — what we are facing as Native people today.”
Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.