KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Ketchikan couple Richard and Janice Jackson were elected in October as the first couple to serve simultaneously as Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Presidents since iconic civil rights leaders Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich did so in 1945.
"We feel gratitude to them. They did work that was very significant," Richard Jackson said.
But the Jacksons are looking more forward than back as they contemplate their year of service ahead: "We're not a mirror of them. We'll deal with today's issues."
Richard and Janice outlined their vision as co-leaders of the two Native empowerment groups.
"One of the biggest concerns is how to engage our youth, because they're going to carry this on when we're gone, so we need to get them involved now — and it's a real struggle," Janice Jackson said.
She said that some of the ways that they plan to motivate youth to become involved in Native advocacy and culture include educating them about their heritage and traditional subsistence way of life, involving them in Native dancing, and getting on the Internet, where they spend time, to interact with them.
"We've got to bridge that gap. We need to reach them," she said.
She used one of the activities she will be leading in Anchorage next week as an example: Foster kids from various Native cultures, including Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Yup'ik, and Aleut will gather with her, and they will create jewelry and key chains made from traditionally harvested sources, such as devil's club beads.
Beads, necklaces and two clear bags bulging with the smooth, ivory-whorled beads which she had made from the spiny native plant lay ready for travel on the Jacksons' kitchen table.
"I'm going to help them connect with their backgrounds," Jackson said. "They don't have any knowledge of Native medicine — 'What does it mean to us?'"
While she works around the table with the students, Jackson said, she will talk about Elizabeth Peratrovich, and how the ANB/ANS fought for equality for Alaska Natives before Martin Luther King Jr. worked for civil rights.
Jackson explained that through an activity like crafting, that the kids enjoy, she hopes she can "hook them in a little bit."
Another issue the couple is tackling is suicide among youth.
The problem "goes across cultures," Richard Jackson said. "It's that time in their life — especially for young men."
Janice Jackson said that they'd like to start a Facebook page to communicate with youth. "Start talking with them on that — a lot of young people are lonely.
"Language and culture is very big," she added. "That is one of the things we need to help our youth, is to connect to who they are. That's how I think we're going to get their attention."
The couple talked about the importance of education for Alaska Natives. One of ANB/ANS's big programs is its scholarship program, Janice Jackson said.
"The education you receive is going to determine your future," Richard Jackson said.
The Jacksons also listed crime and the high rate of incarceration for the Native population as an important issue they want to tackle.
Richard Jackson said he also is focused on subsistence issues. He and his wife are working on changes to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and have a $20,000 fund earmarked for this project.
"Subsistence," is a word he would like to see changed to "way of life," because "subsistence" sounds like people barely scraping by, but, "Our 'way of life' says, 'This is what we have.'"
"We were raised on fish," Richard said, but when Native children were sent to boarding schools, they came home filled full of chemicals and foreign foods.
"If I was on a reservation, I would have been raised on commodities, and I would have been 250 pounds before I was 22, because of these starches," he added. The couple talked about other historical accomplishments of the ANB/ANS, such as winning the right for Native children to attend public schools, getting money for Native hospitals, assisting with legislation, helping with the land claims for Tlingits and Haidas in Southeast Alaska, and winning the right for Natives to vote. The ANB and ANS encouraged Alaska Natives to abandon their heritage at first, and also supported the funneling of Native children into boarding schools. The Jacksons explained that the organization's leaders thought, at first, that embracing the foreign culture would benefit the Native population, helping them to adapt.
"We had to assimilate to survive," Janice Jackson said.
It wasn't until the 1970s or 1980s, the couple explained, that Natives began to truly embrace their culture again.
"We have to work on keeping that identity. It's becoming a big struggle," Richard said. "The egg has been broken, and still has cracks in it; but we have to keep that egg together somehow."
They both emphasized the inclusive nature of the ANB/ANS.
"In 1951, our president was Drency Dudley, who Dudley Field is named after, and he was black ... we can't advocate for causes of equality unless we demonstrate it," Richard Jackson said, adding that Norman Walker was another of the many non-Natives who worked in support of equal rights.
The ANB and ANS were formed in 1912 to work for the rights of Alaska Natives throughout the territory. By 1945, 19 years before the U.S. Civil Rights Act, an anti-discrimination act was passed by the Alaska Territorial Legislature.
Another project the couple plans to tackle in the coming year is to review the ANB/ANS constitution. That work will begin with a committee in Klawock at the beginning of 2011.
Richard Jackson's favorite historical document is the original "Robert's Rules of Order" book used by Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich at their meetings. He smiled as he riffled the yellowed pages of the slim, paperback book.
"That book is like the Holy Grail to me," he said later. Janice Jackson said that the fact that she and Richard are a couple was an important factor to the voters who chose them as Grand Presidents. Both are Tlingit, Janice from the Raven clan and Richard from Eagle.
"They knew that we would communicate; and that's a big deal to the delegates that come together at the convention. They want that communication. We also want to be more visible, so people know what we're doing, and will get excited enough to join us."
Information from: Ketchikan Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com