Alaska Native organization postpones annual convention amid soaring COVID-19 rates

The Alaska Federation of Natives now plans to hold its convention in December, with a virtual option.

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Valerie Davidson gives a keynote address at the 2018 Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage. (Yereth Rosen)

The Alaska Federation of Natives has postponed its annual convention to December, citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for the two-month delay from the normal time for the gathering.

The new plan is to hold an in-person convention in Anchorage, with a virtual option, on Dec. 13 through 15, the AFN said in an Aug. 24 statement.

The AFN board will determine in October whether the in-person aspect can be conducted, the organization said.

“Because our top priority remains the health and safety of our delegates and other participants, the plan for an in-person convention is contingent on progress made in Anchorage and statewide on getting the COVID-19 pandemic back under control,” said AFN President Julie Kitka. “Critical work is needed by all of us to flatten the curve, expand vaccinations, and practice protective behaviors such as masking.”

COVID-19 rates, hospitalizations and deaths have been soaring in Alaska and in Anchorage, the state’s largest city.

AFN is Alaska’s largest Indigenous organization, representing more than 140,000 people. Its convention — normally held in October in either Anchorage or Fairbanks — is the nation’s biggest annual Indigenous gathering, according to the organization. The convention is one of the major annual gatherings around the circumpolar north. It “serves as the principal forum and voice for the Alaska Native community in addressing critical issues of public policy and government,” according to the AFN website.

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During the convention, the AFN delegates choose their leaders for the coming year and attendees hear presentations from federal, state and regional representatives and get updates on AFN work. The convention includes cultural performances and a Native arts exhibit, popular features that are planned to be held in person this year.

In election years, the convention features high-profile debates among candidates for state and federal offices.

Each convention has an annual theme. The 2021 theme is tied to the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, which established for-profit regional and village corporations with land ownership and mineral rights. “The passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act fifty years ago was a groundbreaking, remarkable achievement for Alaska,” advancing self-determination and creating economic benefits, the AFN statement said. However, the law has needed amendments over the years and “there is plenty more work to be done,” the statement said.

Last year’s convention was held virtually. AFN officials want to gather in person this year if it is possible to do safely, Ana Hoffman, the organization’s co-chair, said in the statement.

“Gathering in the same place and sharing with each other is a very important part of our convention, so we are really hoping Anchorage and Alaska can turn the corner on this pandemic by December,” said Hoffman, who is also president of the Bethel Native Corporation.

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An Elders and Youth Conference that normally precedes the AFN convention will be held as scheduled in October, but the conference will be virtual rather than in person. That decision was announced in July by the First Alaskans Institute, the nonprofit organization that hosts the conference. Last year’s Elders and Youth Conference was held virtually as well. Its live events drew more than 2,000 participants, the First Alaskans Institute said.