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

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Photographer Bill Hess (right) speaks with Nelson Angapak, a Yup’ik Elder and Vietnam War veteran, on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023 at an exhibition of Hess’s work at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

The Alaska Federation of Natives convention, opening Thursday in Anchorage, always takes time out to honor veterans. But this year, they’re an even bigger part of this annual gathering.

An exhibit opened Wednesday night at the Dena’ina Center that looks at the work of Bill Hess, and his 40 years of photographing Alaska Native veterans.

Large panels with portraits and candid photographs lined the way into the Dena’ina’s main convention hall Wednesday. The photos were accompanied by detailed captions about the lives of each veteran they depicted.

Alaska Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Wanda Solomon-Parsons was at the event and in uniform. A veteran of two tours of duty in Afghanistan, she was struck by how Hess’s photos evoke the spirituality of serving the nation.

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Alaska Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Wanda Solomon-Parsons poses with some of Hess’s photos. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

“It draws you into a story, and it draws you into a personal life of an Alaskan Native veteran that served,” Solomon-Parsons said. “We all have a story to tell.”

Hess said the AFN exhibit showcases photographs of more than 60 veterans.

“I capture what I see and feel, and the feeling is every bit is important as the eye,” Hess said.

The work unveiled Wednesday has been culled from four decades of pictures that Hess, now 73, has snapped at veterans’ ceremonies. It also includes sit-down portraits of veterans he met along the way.

“I don’t feel like I’ve photographed near enough, actually,” Hess said.

Hess has been working long enough, however, to know that Alaska Native veterans don’t get nearly enough appreciation. Out of all the ethnic groups in the nation, Alaska Natives have the highest rate of service to their country – and yet as a people, Hess said they’ve been treated terribly.

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Walter Sampson of Noorvik is depicted alongside his account of service in the Vietnam War. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

“These are Alaska Native Indigenous people who are willing to put their life on the line for a country that took it upon himself to subsume most of their country,” he said. “It’s still their country, and – and they have a loyalty to it.”

Benno Cleveland, who heads the Alaska Native Veterans Council and served in Vietnam, says that service is a way of life for Alaska Natives. The tradition goes back to World War II, when thousands of Alaska Natives signed up to join the Alaska Territorial Guard, to defend the country when the Japanese bombed Unalaska and invaded the Aleutian Islands.

“And that way we started to come into the United States as citizens, as equals,” Cleveland said.  

Cleveland said Native veterans are known for their love of service, as well as their endurance and remarkable ability to fight in the cold.

“Our people are adaptable – we can adapt to any situation, anything that comes our way,” he said. “That is our strength.”

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Former state Sen. Jerry Ward, who also served in Vietnam, was among the Alaska Natives featured in the AFN exhibition. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

From the Territorial Guard, to Vietnam, to the Persian Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, Hess’ photos also show how this legacy of service has been passed down across the generations. 

Hess isn’t done with his work. He has a booth set up at the AFN convention and will be taking pictures of more Alaska Native veterans.

His exhibit will be up for the duration of AFN, which continues through Saturday.

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