What will Alaska Look Like in 10,000 Years?
Who will be here? What will they do? And, most important, what will be preserved from the past 10,000 years? These are not easy questions. Even thinking about the next decade, let alone thousands of years, gets interrupted by every crisis that requires our attention. There is business to transact. Cell phones buzz. Unanswered emails compound. And, so, we think about the now, not the next.
In early March, First Alaskans Institute gathered a group of 50 people for a week in Bethel to think about that future. There was diversity by region, generation, interest, expertise and voice, by corporate, tribal, and non-profit organizations, artists, Elders, young people, children, storytellers, performers; in all, a real mix to holistically bring collective knowledge to talk about how to perpetuate as stewards Native people’s lands, people, and cultures for another 10,000 years.
In communications about the event, First Alaskan Institute’s President/CEO, Liz Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida from Kake, explained that too often we find ourselves in a constant cycle of triage—never having enough time to think really long term because we are so busy putting out fires, taking care of urgent and unmet needs of people, dealing with bad law and policy with no time and energy left when balancing all that. This was an opportunity for Alaska Natives to really think deeply about where we are going with a diverse group of people who have an interest in stepping up to help our communities and peoples.
Different guest speakers, or catalyzers, opened each morning and afternoon session; their job was to speak clearly, boldly, challengingly about our current paradigms around a specific area to help set the tone for a dialogue to get folks thinking about the issues before Alaskans.
Troy Eid was the first catalyzer. He served as the volunteer Chair of the Indian Law and Order Commission created by the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 to recommend changes to the President and Congress on strengthening public safety in American Indian and Alaska Native communities that resulted in the Roadmap for Making Native America Safer report. The report includes recommendations for safe communities by reducing the unacceptable high rates of violent crime in Native communities. In his pre-session, there was open dialogue and conversation about where the Native community is, what drives dynamics, why people are the way they are. Participants had an opportunity to develop trust and hear different perspectives on tribal/state relations, tribes and corporations, generational demographics and the tension between the generations particularly in this real time of flux.
As shared by another catalyzer, Mark Trahant, Atwood Chair at UAA, some of the course correction requires immediate action. In less than fifteen years, for example, Alaska will have a higher percentage of Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans than white people. “The state is already super-diverse. It may not look or feel that way depending on where you’re from in the state but as a whole the state is really diverse. As we continue to march through time, especially for Alaska Native populations, most of our population is under the age of 25 and that birth rate is only increasing. So if you apply that to all the other populations, the same thing is happening, plus we’re having so many more people move up. What Alaska will look like on its face is going to be a lot different by the year 2040 than it does today.”
The goal of the week was not to develop a detailed strategic plan, but rather to create a framework for conversations that will continue to make sure that Alaska’s Native peoples are culturally distinct. That framework includes aligning the forces and the tools they have: “the force of their spirituality, physicality, lands, knowledge and experience and who they are as Native people, and through governmental forums—as citizens of tribal, state, and the US where 1+1+1 is 3 opportunities to do things right,” as Medicine Crow stated.
This means new sources of political power and coalitions will be formed to deliver change in Alaska. Medicine Crow said people felt a sense of power, a recognition that it already exists, ready to walk out the door and do something.
Medicine Crow asked: “Can the Native community look this far out first by looking at our ancestors and where we’ve been and respecting that past to use as a tool moving forward for healing, for wholeness, wellness and for the ability, power, self-determination to be able to make sure we are culturally distinct peoples? I think intuitively it makes a lot of sense for Native people. It’s really not so much of a mystery for us because we can actually turn around and look directly at our past because we’ve been here for longer than that. We know that as stewards of our time, on behalf of our people that we have at minimum a trajectory of that much time to look forward to.”
First Alaskans Institute will publish a report soon and it will be available online at http://firstalaskans.org/. Mark Trahant, Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage, interviewed Liz Medicine Crow after the conference. The interview is available online at: http://trahantreports.com/. First Alaskans Institute helps develop the capacities of Alaska Native people and their communities to meet the social, economic and educational challenges of the future, while fostering positive relationships among all segments of our society. The Institute does this through community engagement, information and research, collaboration, and leadership development.