AFN keynote speakers highlight the importance of perseverance and protecting ‘our ways of life’

a woman in a white suit speaks at a podium
Sophie Minich, outgoing CEO and president of CIRI, speaks at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

The annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention kicked off in Anchorage on Thursday. The group is the largest organization of Indigenous people in the country, bringing in delegates from all corners of the state. The theme of this year’s convention is “Our Ways of Life.”

This year, delegates had the rare opportunity to hear from two keynote speakers: the outgoing president of an Alaska Native corporation and an Iditarod champion.

AFN Board co-chair Ana Hoffman introduced both keynote addresses, highlighting how each relates to the theme of the convention.

“Our traditional ways of life as Alaska Native people are centered around land, and subsistence,” Hoffman said. “And that sustains us as Alaska Native people for thousands of years, and we continue to practice that way throughout the state.”

The first keynote address came from Sophie Minich, the outgoing president and CEO of CIRI. Minich said she has attended AFN’s convention for 25 years, and the only constant has been change, and how Alaska Native people react to it.

“As Alaska Native people, we seek to not only survive, but to thrive,” Minich said. “It is no exaggeration to say that our future depends on our ability to work together in unity.”

Minich highlighted several issues facing Alaska Native communities, including climate change, impacts to subsistence, substance misuse and missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

“Overcoming the collective challenges that face us requires clearly defined priorities, consensus, and coalition building, cooperation, respectful dialogue and courage,” Minich said.

Keeping on the topic of change, Minich spoke about her mother, a Gwich’in Athabascan woman who grew up in Fort Yukon. Minich’s mother was forced to go to boarding schools in Nenana and Eklutna at age 13 when her own mother died of tuberculosis.

“Like so many experienced, her way of life was erased,” Minich said. “Pride in her Athabascan heritage was stripped away. Stories that she learned from her elders and experiences in the village were pushed deep inside.”

Despite her mother not celebrating her heritage as she grew up, Minich said her mother enrolled her and her siblings as tribal members after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Minich ended up thriving in a leadership program for Alaska Native students and worked for CIRI for 30 years, serving as president and CEO for the last decade. 

She ended her keynote speech talking about the future, and the ways that Alaska Native people would need to use new technologies and ingenuity to protect and preserve their ways of life.

“We put in the work today, so that we can build a future for the next seven generations,” Minich said. “Preserving our ways of life depends on our collective ability to innovate.”

Minich was followed by the second AFN keynote speaker, Ryan Redington, the 2023 champion of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. This year’s race was noteworthy for three Alaska Native mushers finishing in the top three, with Redington followed by Pete Kaiser of Bethel and Richie Diehl of Aniak. 

A man in a black suit speaks at a podium.
Ryan Redington, 2023 Iditarod champion, shares stories from his childhood at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Redington comes from a long line of dog mushing royalty. His grandfather Joe Redington Sr. was commonly known as the “Father of the Iditarod.” At 10 years old, Ryan Redington and a friend even tried to follow his grandfather on the trail, three hours behind him with no extra gear or dog food.

“We borrowed some dogs without asking and we shouldn’t have,” Redington said. “And it was a lot of fun. We didn’t catch up to grandpa.”

Redington said the race was calling his name from a young age, and it was a dream of his to bring home the bronze trophy adorned with his grandfather’s likeness. 

“To have the result of my dream come true after 16 attempts spread out over 22 years, I mushed across the finish line in Nome after eight days, 21 hours, 12 minutes and 58 seconds on the trail,” Redington said. “I finally brought home my grandpa’s trophy.”

Redington said he learned two things after he won the 1,000 mile race in March.

“Number one, the trophy actually weighs 101 pounds, not 90 pounds,” Redington said to laughs from the crowd. “And number two, I learned that it’s okay to struggle, to scratch, to learn from your mistakes, to regroup, and then to keep moving forward.”

Redington thanked the people he’d met over the years visiting various communities on the Iditarod trail and the mushing mentors he looked up to growing up. 

“In the words of one of my mushing heroes, George Attla, ‘Anybody that can get on top of their problems and drive their thoughts in the right direction is a winner,’” Redington said.

A man in a Black suit receives a gift.
Ryan Redington receives a gift after his keynote speech. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

The AFN convention will continue through Saturday, with Alaska’s two U.S. senators and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland set to deliver remarks on Friday. U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola will speak at the conference on Saturday.

RELATED: ‘They have a loyalty’: AFN photos capture generations of Alaska Natives’ military service

a portrait of a man outside

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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