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 kilennium?
These are not easy questions. Even thinking about the next decade, let alone thousands of years, is interrupted by every crisis that requires attention. There is business to transact. Cell phones buzz. Unanswered emails compound. And, so, we think about the now, not the next.
What if we step back and only think about the future? We turn off our phones, don’t answer email, and ignore interruption.
The First Alaskans Institute recently gathered a group of people together for a week in Bethel to have that very conversation. Elizabeth Medicine Crow said that very idea is a part of the institute’s vision and came from the founding board members. “I think intuitively it makes a lot of sense for Native people. But I also think for most people it’s really hard to wrap their arms around, ‘what does that mean? For 10,000 years.’ 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.”
Medicine Crow, who’s president of the institute, said it was a chance to convene a diverse gathering of people who were eager to think deeply about “where we’re going.”
“So it’s not just corporations, it’s not just tribes, it’s not just non-profits, it’s also artists, it’s elders, it’s young people, mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, storytellers, performers, it was a real mix” she said. “It’s non-hierarchical. So it’s not just people who have a title. Leadership to us is our Native people who are stepping up to help our communities and to help our people.”
Medicine Crow is Tlingit and Haida from Kake. She told a story about a lesson she learned from Polynesian navigators. “The traditional practice of sailing by the stars requires that they set their bow looking forward but they are navigating from the stars behind them because from that they can know the direction their bow is going. I think that is such a powerful analogy about the way our ancestors think about time. And the way we should think about it, too.”
The long story that reflects the Alaska Native experience — or Native America’s for that matter — is mostly about the interruptions from the past century or two. So the current challenges are not the norm, certainly not over a 10,000 year history, but nonetheless require our attention to get back on course.
And some of this 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.”
This means new sources of political power and coalitions will be formed to deliver change in Alaska (and in so many other parts of the country). Medicine Crow said people felt a sense of power, a recognition that it already exists, ready to walk out the door and do something.
One conversation focused on ending sexual abuse and decided to find a way to create more involvement with the Men’s and Women’s houses. “That was so powerful for the participants from the houses,” Medicine Crow said. “But they came out of it knowing that it was something that was good for our community … to be able to talk about the issue and to really say, ‘enough is enough.’ That was really exciting to see because they were not waiting for someone to say, ‘We now deem you authorized to take care of this, this is not your territory,’ but rather, we’re all Native people, it’s all our responsibility and this is something we can do.”
What struck me about the Bethel gathering (and I was only there part of the time) was a sense of optimism about the future. The benefit of a 10,000 year horizon is that it makes every problem solvable because at the end of the arc is people who continue to live and survive in land of their ancestors.
The goal of the week was not a detailed strategic plan, but a framework for conversations that will continue “to make sure that we’re cultural distinct people. Not the same. Not Alaska Natives being the all the same. But culturally distinct societies of people. And these aren’t even my words,” Medicine Crow says with a smile. “They’re my grandfather’s words.”
Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.