Alaska Natives and the Northern Lights (Fairbanks, Part 2)

We arrived in Fairbanks shortly after the beginning of the conference.  (The purpose of this trip, other than fun, was to attend the free Alaska Federation of Natives Conference.) The road had a crystaline snow on it which blew over and around like dust or sand.  The air was sharp and dry, probably in the low 20’s.  Many intersections and portions of road we glazed with solid ice, made drivable by the introduction of gravel, which froze to the surface.  A 30grit sandpaper providing increased traction; a surface which would otherwise be intended for ice skaters, though likely ‘saved’ at the expense of one’s tires.

Excitedly we slide our way from our parking spot down the road to the indoor ice-rink turned convention center.  Families were congregated out front, and under-dressed teenagers ran around outside the entrance where staff stood, bored and apparently without purpose.  The event was  free, an annual gathering for the Alaska Native communities to address relevant and urgent issues.  It was chaotic.

The same disorder around the entrance was continued inside.  The speaker we had hoped to see was on early and at the end of his speech.  The cacophony of reunion, gossip and banter nearly silenced the speaker to his new audience of two – though it seemed not to phase him.

I stood still trying to pick out his words from the other sounds.  Six hours of silent landscape and the calm conversation of my company backlit by light folk and ambient post-rock had ill-prepared me for the intensity I now faced. I grew anxious and unerved with each moment.  I began despertly looking for seating nearest to the speaker, furthest from the crowd, but found the state of the Alaska native conference to be pervasive and strangely ironic – the voices of the presenters drown by the majoirty colonizers of the conference room.

Though perhaps the accommodations, expectations, or arrangements of this event were a moniker of the conlonista presence over the last 100 years… having infiltrated deeply enough to turn their own gathering against them in its westernized, culturally-bland gathering ideologies…  Indeed this was a far cry from a potlatch, though admittedly I have yet to attend one.

It was not what I expected. We grazed the craft-tent, becoming more disenchanted to the change-potential of the event. An MIT exhibit of 3D plastic printers and laser engravers wowed the young kids and myself – though an attendant/supervisor noted the native elders were not so quick to accept it. I did not blame them.

We left and meandered the surprisingly small downtown settling eventually at a sketchy-looking yet well reviewed Hawaiian restaurant, just after a call to our host for the night: Adam.

Adam was a couch surfer, and a host of couch surfers too. A man of southern hospitality and Marine training-induced calmness and directness of tongue. Friendly, and easy to talk to. We met him at UAF, (University of Alaska: Fairbanks), at the student bar – an establishment I always appreciate, especially when done well; when outsiders can enjoy its atmosphere as much as the local students. – He sat with his friends Brady and Liz at a table and wasted no time in grabbing a pitcher of local beer.  The small talk easily grew to medium talk.  We felt comfortable, welcome, and reassured of Fairbank’s potential.  We left after a few hours to follow Adam back to his cabin for the night.

“Have you guys ever seen the northern lights?” he asked as we walked from the bar.
“Once? Maybe?” I questioned, as if he could remind me.  “No.” Natalie said with anticipation.
He looked down at his phone and read from a text message.  “The lights are out.”

A small, still moment of cold air was made more tolerable by the ghostly green waves which danced just above the trees. I felt that I could stand there for hours, examining every shift in color and intensity.  But I felt the day weighing on my eyes, and we were herded inside without resistance.

His cabin was surprisingly modern, at least on the inside.  A small living room/kitchenette/flat-screen-tv-moive area occupied the modest 200 square foot floor plan.  A gas heater in the corner eliminated every draft, and the space instantly felt homey – as a cabin should, I would think.  He insisted we take his full bed in the loft, and I put up less resistance than one might often deem to be polite.

We awoke a quick 9 hours later and crawled outside to snow-dusted trees and an orange sun still rising at 10am, shining through the evergreens.  I wouldn’t doubt the aurora’s positive effect on our sleep or post-sleep moods, as I felt energized and euphoric.  The conference continued that day, and despite the restful sleep and friendly company the night prior, walking into the conference hall quickly brought me back to my international development-induced pessimistic coma, philosophical query and disappointment.

We stayed for one more night, the details of which are not of supreme importance but the sentiment notably moved from disappointing purposelessness to depressing reality.  Inspiration to understand a little more about the Alaskan situation was perhaps all I took away – though perhaps that was good enough.  Adam and his friends did however award us another night of fun and friendship, of which I hope we will be able to continue in the future.

The ride back to Anchorage seemed shorter in distance, but longer in time.  As strange, yet slightly expected feeling.  There was also a sunset, the likes of which reminded me of, and rivaled any since Manitoba.


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