Alaska Native Studies Conference circles back to UAA, where it began four years ago

April 13, 2016

The Alaska Native Studies Conference at UAA this Thursday, Friday and Saturday—with two keynotes, 48 panels and up to 400 expected participants—is a homecoming of sorts.

Registration at the first Alaska Native Studies Conference 2013

Registration at the first Alaska Native Studies Conference 2013. (Photo by Rob Stapleton for UAA)

That historic note came out in conversation last week with some of the conference organizers—Maria Williams, Sharon Lind and Jeane Breinig—gathered for last-minute conference decisions and details. They pointed out that the conference began at UAA in 2013, and, just as planned, traveled to UA Southeast and UA Fairbanks for years two and three. Now, it returns for its fourth session to UAA.

Alaska Native artist Alvin Amason speaking at the first Alaska Native Studies Conference at UAA in 2013. (Photo by Rob Stapleton for UAA)

Alaska Native artist Alvin Amason speaking at the first Alaska Native Studies Conference at UAA in 2013. (Photo by Rob Stapleton for UAA)

“It’s returning to its founding fathers,” quipped Lind, a marketing professor, then quickly corrected that, with a laugh, to “mothers.”

The conference is truly the brainchild of the Alaska Native Studies Council, a collection of Alaska Native Studies faculty from across the University of Alaska’s three universities. Small in numbers, this group connected informally at first, meeting monthly by teleconference to share news on courses, plans and curriculum development.

First Alaska Native Studies Conference journal

Alaska Native Studies Conference journal, featuring work presented at the first conference in 2013 at UAA.

UAA hosted the first conference in spring, 2013. The theme then was “Transforming the University: Alaska Native Studies in the 21st Century,” with keynote speaker Graham Smith from New Zealand and more than 300 participants. Papers collected from the conference became the first edition of the Alaska Native Studies Journal.

Second and third year conferences were held at UA Southeast and UA Fairbanks. Now the conference is back at UAA, and bigger than ever.

Sold out pre-conference

An all-day Thursday session on language revitalization at Gorsuch Commons completely sold out, Williams said. UAA has seen student-driven Tlingit, Inupiaq and Yupik language circles take shape on campus. APU has also hosted language circles. The pre-conference session will include Haida and Tsimshian language champions from Southeast.

“There is a wonderful renaissance happening around language with Alaska Native young people,” Williams said, reflected in the popularity of this pre-conference session, titled “Breathing new life into our languages: Promoting wellness in our language communities.”

Theme: Wellness & Healing

A full conference schedule and extensive panel descriptions are available here (44-page PDF). The conference theme is Wellness & Healing: Indigenous Innovations & Alaska Native Research. Registration is still available here. Students and elders over age 62 can register for free here, just bring identification to the conference.

Both keynote addresses are scheduled for the Wendy Williamson Auditorium, Williams noted, with seating for up to 900.  Both sessions are free and open to the public. Michael Yellow Bird speaks at 9:45 a.m. Friday and Shawn Wilson speaks Saturday at 9:30 a.m.

Aligned with the conference theme of wellness, both keynotes will address healing in their remarks.

Michael Yellow Bird

Michael Yellow Bird

Michael Yellow Bird is a professor at North Dakota State University. His bio can be found in the full program, but Williams emphasized his work in “neurological decolonization, how we can heal ourselves… His basic premise is that a lot of Native American ceremonies and religious practices that were lost due to colonial practices or boarding school prohibitions, these ceremonies had healing value. Their loss led to dysfunction. But through mindfulness, which is what ceremony is, you can actually heal the brain.” Mindfulness research with post traumatic stress syndrome survivors documents that healing is possible.

Shawn Wilson

Shawn Wilson

Shawn Wilson is Opaskwayak Cree from Monitoba, Canada but living and working in Australia. There, he coordinates a Doctor for Indigenous Philosophies program at Southern Cross University. Williams says he is best known for his book, “Research as Ceremony,” where he looks at methodologies of research.

“He works with Indigenous populations and takes their world view and incorporates it into fields like human services and social service,” Williams said. “Because social work can come from a very Western construct, and be very alienating.”

She was most excited that both keynotes emphasize applied research. “Theories are great, but applying it, that’s so important,” she said.

Over-arching theme

Among the 48 panels are sessions that focus on healing and well-being from many different angles, from poetry to music and dance, to education models, to the unique structure of Alaska Native corporations.


Maria Williams speaks at the first Alaska Native Studies Conference at UAA in 2013. (Photo by Rob Stapleton for UAA)

One session, at 1 p.m. Saturday, involves a Medicine Horse, coming all the way from the Sacred Way Sanctuary in Florence, Alabama. “I’ve been getting these calls,” Williams said, smiling, “Is there a patch of grass where I can park the horse trailer? We originally had them scheduled for a classroom in Rasmuson Hall…but we’ll have to make some other arrangements.”

What Williams finds truly exciting about this fourth conference is its resilient focus on the future.

“So many times, we can come together for a conference and the emphasis is on terrible economic straits, or suicide rates, or terrible education performance. The deficit model.

Twila Chalakun of Chevak

Conference participant Twila Chalakun from Chevak passes the microphone during a 2013 panel discussion. (Photo by Rob Stapleton for UAA)

“But this conference, including the work of the keynote speakers, presents this amazing juncture where we see the Indigenous world view and Indigenous values actually applied to what used to be totally separate, Western entities, like corporations.”

Here she brings her hands together, fingers intertwined. “Corporations are a traditionally Western concept. Yet corporations in Alaska are hugely evolved. No one on the planet does corporations like we do in Alaska. This is the model we are developing. This is how we incorporate Indigenous values and actually move forward.”

Additional conference background

Mission of the Alaska Native Studies Council

The Alaska Native Studies Council promotes a deeper and more sustained commitment to integrating Indigenous perspectives into a variety of educational settings. Our mission is to identify, develop, and implement Native-focused curricula, to promote and publish Alaska Native-related research and pedagogical strategies, and to develop a strategic plan to help us attain these goals.

Program Committee

Jeane Breinig, Sharon Lind, Beth Leonard, Maria Williams, Paul Ongtooguk, E.J. David, Maria Crouch, Medeia Csoba-DeHass, Ryan Harrod, Amanda Kookesh, Rebecca Dreier, Crystalyn Lemieux, Heidi Senungetuk, X’unei Twitchell, Roy Mitchell, Tony Kaliss, Kirsten Anderson

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