AFN convention launches Oct. 18 with exhibit honoring veterans

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Benno Cleveland, an Alaska Native Vietnam veteran who received a Purple Heart, will be one of the veterans honored at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Oct. 18, 2023. (Courtesy Bill Hess)

When Anchorage hotels fill up at the start of October, traffic picks up and stores and restaurants do brisk business, it’s a sign that the Alaska Federation of Natives convention is around the corner.

Native corporations and tribal organizations, as well as state and federal agencies, have already begun to meet ahead of AFN. Many of these gatherings are spread out over the entire month of October. Delegates and their families also arrive early for the Elders and Youth Conference, but AFN officially gets underway on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 18.

Normally the convention opens on Thursday morning, but Nicole Stoops, an organizer for this year’s event, said AFN has set aside its first day to honor veterans. An exhibit opening with the convention will feature the work of Bill Hess, who has photographed Alaska Native veterans for more than 40 years.

“There are many in black and white. There are many in color,” Stoops said. “But they’re very emotional when you look at them. It’s a beautiful story to be told.”

Three Native leaders who have served in the military will share their own stories: Emil Notti, one of AFN’s founders, former state senator Jerry Ward and Benno Cleveland, who received a Purple Heart while serving in Vietnam.

Also that evening, AFN will premiere “One with the Whale,” a documentary that tells the story of a St. Lawrence Island teenager, the youngest person ever in the community to land a whale. What was a proud moment for the village soured, after environmental activists unleashed a stream of hateful attacks online.

Stoops said there were even death threats.

“To have that kind of backlash, really, it shows his emotional turmoil and how his family suffered through that, but also persevered through,” she said.

Stoops said the film will set the tone for the convention and its theme, “Our Ways of Life,” which will explore how values are shaped by a culture’s relationship with the land.

“We have diverse cultures, diverse languages, but the core values are still there,” she said. “The cultural values that our ways of life are still very similar — and how we can work together, especially when it comes to those obstacles that we face as Alaska Natives.”

Each region of the state will share how the land and its resources have shaped their traditions, followed by panel discussions, in part to heal some of the rifts that occurred last year, when a bitter debate broke out on the last day of the convention over the Western Alaska salmon crisis, causing several organizations to break with AFN.

AFN remains the state’s largest convention, drawing delegates and their families from across the state. AFN estimates that the annual gathering has 6,000 attendees. AFN is also broadcast statewide and is webcast to 70 countries, worldwide.

This year, it will be held at the Dena’ina Center in downtown Anchorage from Oct. 18-21. AFN is open to the public. Most sessions are free, except the evening Native dance performances.

The Native Arts Fair is one of the most popular events at AFN. This year, it has expanded beyond the main exhibit area, to include a second floor — but there is still a long waiting list for vendors.

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