by Rhonda McBride
1:43 PM AKDT, October 17, 2011
The wisdom of the elders and the energy of the youth: that’s what Alaska Native leaders say make the Elders and Youth conference a life-changing experience.
The 28th annual gathering got underway on Monday at the Dena’ina Center in downtown Anchorage. The conference will attract more than 1,300 people. Over the years, it’s become the build-up to the main Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, which gavels in on Thursday morning and is expected to attract a crowd of about 5,000.
The keynote speech for the first day of the Elders and Youth Conference came from a tiny elder with a big message. At just an inch under five-feet tall, Elaine Abraham stood just about as high as the podium.
Abraham was born in 1929 and spent most of her life in Yakutat.
Before a packed room of elders and students, she called for the return of a Native tradition that has fallen out of practice: giving children names in their Native language.
“Names of our Native people come from the earth. They are land based. They are clan based,” said Abraham.
The Tlingit elder told the gathering that her own village also has roots in the Eyak and Athabascan cultures. Abraham says the traditional names of the people of Yakutat, which often include landmarks, tell the story of her people’s migration.
“Our people come from Chitina, or from McCarthy. We estimated three thousand years ago,” said Abraham.
With a Native name, the child gets a lot of history, says Abraham. “They get the history of the land. They get the family history. They begin to relate to the elders they didn’t know they were related too. But it’s not a blood relation. It’s a community, land relation.”
Abraham also talked about the Yup’ik tradition in Southwest Alaska of naming a child for someone who had recently died in the village.
“When that baby is born and the name is given of a relative,” said Abraham, the relative comes to the house with food. And they come to the house to see the baby, and they sprinkle the baby with water on the head and on the body. And they call that child the name of their son or their daughter, or their grandchild (who was lost).”
“It has brought two generations of people together,” she said. “It has brought two families together.”
Before Abraham left the stage, she asked those in the audience with Native names to stand and stomp their feet. Many people in the room obliged.
“This will make you proud to say your Native names, and we stomp it into Mother Earth,” said the elder.
Abraham’s grandson, Kai Monture, was recently given a name at a potlatch, “Eek Kahaa Kaa,” which means “Copper Digger Man.”
“I’m very proud. Receiving a potlatch name is really a huge honor for me,” said Monture. “Names are critical to our identity -- not just to our culture but personal identities.” Monture says the naming was symbolic of him becoming a contributing member of the community.
Abraham says the naming traditions began to fall away in the early 1900’s, because missionaries discouraged them and began putting western names on birth certificates.
“Naming went underground,” said Abraham. But the tradition continues today in many Native families.
“My name is ‘fish’,” says anthropologist Sven Haakanson, Jr., who grew up on Kodiak Island where the Supiaq language was spoken.
Haakanson agrees with Abraham that the widespread use of Native names could be a very powerful way for young people to connect with their culture.
“Iqaluk. That’s my name. I’m speaking my language. And that makes me want to know more about my language,” said Haakanson.
Others at the convention say their Native names have helped them spiritually.
Andrea Sanders, one of the organizers of the conference for the First Alaskans Institute, says her Yup’ik name is “Akalleq,” which means “One who Rolls Over.” She was named by her mother and grandmother after an uncle,who died just before she was born.
“The way I like to interpret that is ‘One who is Accepting of Change,’” said Sanders.
It was William Shakespeare who asked the question, “What’s in a Name?”
But it was Elaine Abraham who challenged the bard’s premise on Monday that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
"Those names that we had three thousand years ago, we carry today," said Abraham. "It might be a sacred place. It might be in the legends, myths. That's where your past is."
One of the ironies in Monday’s keynote…
Abraham did not tell the gathering her own Native name, which the crowd might have found appropriate.
Abraham says, before she was born, she was given the name “Chooshaa,” a name that goes back nine generations. The word has Tlingit and Eyak origins and means “Ancient Grandma Returns.”
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