Ft. Wainwright holds potlach to honor soldiers and veterans

Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 4:02 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - On Friday, Nov. 18, members of the Alaska Native community leadership from Ft. Wainwright put on a potlatch to honor the soldiers stationed in Fairbanks, and the veterans from Alaska, saying “Quyanaa” which means thank you.

“The native community is coming out here to pay respect to each and every one of you,” said Benno Cleveland, the president of the Alaska Native Veterans Association, as he addressed the thousands of soldiers and families that attended the potlatch. Chris Simon, the chairman of Doyon Limited explained the the potlatch was “just the native way of saying thank you and honoring” the men and women in uniform. He also said the it was one of the ways Alaska Natives welcome people.

Salmon, moose soup and other food was prepared and shared and speakers from both the native community and the military community shared their stories, advice and culture.

Cleveland spoke about his time as a soldier during the Vietnam war and remarked on both the good times and the bad times. However, he focused his message on the importance of strength in unity. Cleveland said that after the war many of his fellow veterans distanced themselves from the trauma they endured and “threw away” their uniforms. As they struggled with their physical, spiritual and emotional wounds, the need to reunite became apparent. “Together we are strong,” said Cleveland. He also addressed the topic of suicide, a problem that is faced by both the military and the native community. “Anytime we hear about a suicide, that hurts us,” said Cleveland. He urged the soldier to “stick together,” and “watchout after each other.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan was also in attendance and spoke to the soldiers about the relationship between the military and Alaska Natives. While Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state, “Alaska Natives serve at higher rates in the military than any other ethnic group,” said Sullivan. He said that the native community, which makes up 15.7% of the states population, has “special patriotism,” since they have served “at times when their country hasn’t always treated them well.”

Serving since World War II, Alaska Native commitment to national security was brought up time and time again during the potlatch, but comradery and unity was central during the gathering.

Brian Ridley, the chief and chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference, had a father in the Air Force and Chris Simon has a daughter in the military, but Ridley turned his attention to all soldiers and veterans during his speech. “We need to do a better job taking care of you guys when you get back home,” said Ridley as spoke about the lack of support veterans receive.

The soldiers also had a chance to partake in song and dance as the two communities celebrated their connection. They also reciprocated their gratitude for the native community and gifted the emblem of the 11th Airborne Division to First Traditional Chief, Reverend Trimble Gilbert.