WATCH and LISTEN to gavel-to-gavel AFN Convention coverage
An exhibit opened Wednesday night at the Dena’ina Convention Center that looks at the work of Bill Hess and his 40 years of photographing Alaska Native veterans.
Rhonda McBride from our flagship station KNBA was there for the opening.
Before you enter the main convention hall, large panels with portraits and candid photographs line the way.
“Actually, when you walk in, it draws you in.”
Wanda Solomon-Parsons (Athabascan), Alaska National Guard Member, is dressed in her uniform.
She’s served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and was struck by how the photos evoke the spirituality of serving your country.
“It draws you into a story and it draws you into a personal life of an Alaskan Native veteran that served. We all have a story to tell.”
Along with the pictures, you can read about each veteran’s life.
“I capture what I see and feel and the feeling is every bit is important as the eye.”
Bill Hess says this exhibit showcases photographs of more than 60 veterans, culled from four decades pictures he’s snapped at veterans’ ceremonies, as well as sit-down portraits of vets he met along the way.
“I don’t feel like I’ve photographed near enough actually.”
But long enough to know that Alaska Native Veterans don’t get near enough appreciation.
Out of all the ethnic groups in the country, Alaska Natives have the highest rate of service to their country and yet as a people, Hess says, they’ve been treated terribly.
“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. It’s still their country and, and they have a loyalty to it.”
Benno Cleveland (Inupiaq), who is head of the Alaska Native Veterans Council says, serving your country as a way of life for Alaska Natives, a tradition of service that goes back to World War II, when thousands of Alaska Natives signed up to the Alaska Territorial Guard to defend the country during World War II, a direct threat when the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in Unalaska and invaded the Aleutians.
“And that way we started to come into the United States as citizens, as equals.”
And also known for their love of service to the country, 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, that is our strength.”
From the Territorial Guard, to Vietnam, to the Persian Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan, the exhibit also shows how this legacy of service has been passed down across the generations.
The 2023 AFN Citizen of the Year Award went to Kodiak resident Margaret Roberts on Thursday.
She was nominated by the Woody Island Tribal council and was selected by the AFN board of directors.
She passed away in July of last year and has been praised by communities all over Alaska for her tireless dedication to the Alutiiq language and dance, as well as advocating for the rights of Alutiiq people and Alaskans.
Born and raised in Kodiak, Roberts was known for her leadership.
She served on boards for many tribal councils including the Alaska Native Claims Settlement act corporation, as well as other non-profit organizations.
Robert’s daughters joined the presenters and Alutiiq dancers, a dance group Roberts created, onstage.
Leslie Ann Heglan, Roberts’ oldest daughter, spoke of her mother’s tireless commitment to her people and corporations, even while fighting cancer and just having had surgery.
“She tells me she leaves that Sunday for Seattle for housing meetings and (a) conference. I said ‘WHAT?! Mom you just got back from surgery, what are you thinking you can’t go, you’re still l weak.’ Mom went, it was about a week later, she looked just exhausted. Mom had selflessness and worried about everyone.”
Heglan said Roberts also fought for the Alutiiq language to be taught in her daughter’s school.
“And it did happen. Sammy had four years of Alutiiq language in high school.”
After Roberts’ daughters accepted the award, the Kodiak Alutiiq dance group performed a Native dance to honor the memory of the woman who made it possible for them to be up on the stage that day.
Roberts was known in her Alutiiq language as “the one who dances.”
Check out our Day 1 gallery courtesy of our partners at Alaska Public Media
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