AFN keynote to discuss military service and leadership
How does a young ROTC instructor in the Air Force, without interest or shares in Native corporations, become the keynote speaker at the AFN? Lt. Colonel Wayne Don says you can blame his brother.
In 2005, Don's brother "gifted" him some shares to NIMA, his village corporation, and urged him to run for its board.
"At the time, I didn't know much about [the corporation], and what I did wasn't necessarily positive," he said "The board didn't really get along with the community, and I didn't really want any part of it."
But at his brother's insistence, he accepted the shares and ran for the board, hoping he would not win. He won a seat, and he has served as the corporation's chairman since 2007. In August, Calista Regional Corporation elected him chairman. In these roles, he has worked to improve community relations by increasing communication and expanding scholarships, shareholder dividends, and services for hardship.
Louis Hala, Don's village corporation's president and CEO, has worked with Don since 2005 and calls him a natural leader. "He has a dedicated perseverance" about his work and service, Hala said.
But Don — true to his military background — values actions over words. That way, he said, "rather than tell everybody how great we are, people can see it.??
Don will have to do some telling, though, when he delivers one of two keynote addresses at this year's AFN convention. The other speaker will be Sergeant Jody Potts, village public safety officer and director of public safety at the Tanana Chiefs Conference. Both Don and Potts will address the convention on Thursday, Oct. 19.
"It's an honor," he said about being asked to give the keynote, but he stressed that he hopes to use his speech to honor other veterans from the Alaska Native community — particularly those from the Alaska Territorial Guard.
The Guard was a U.S. Army reserve force that defended the coast of Alaska during World War II. The force recruited volunteer guardsmen from over 100 mostly native communities across the state, bringing together Aleut, Inupiaq, Haida, Tlingit, Yupik, and more ethnic groups for the first time.
Don only recently learned about the Alaska Territorial Guard. "I always considered myself a first-generation military person," he said. "But what I later found out was that both of my grandfathers were in the territorial guard and were veterans. And that a lot of the early leaders in the community and the state were veterans."
Although not widely known, military service has been an important tradition in rural Alaskan villages. Don hopes to call attention to this legacy and the values that come with it.
Members of the AFN staff echo this sentiment. When discussing what he looked forward to most in the convention, AFN Vice President Ben Mallot cited Colonel Wayne's speech. "We're very proud of our veterans," he said, "and we make a point to honor them each year."
Don also hopes to bring light to some of the issues facing both Alaskans and veterans today. "Substance abuse — whether you're a veteran or not — is a big problem," Don said. But he finds the AFN's work to "get in front of the issue" encouraging.
"AFN is a large and very powerful political body," he said. He cited a successful write-in campaign for Senator Lisa Murkowski as an example. But, according to Don, this power only manifests when Alaska Natives unite.
On difficult issues like drilling in ANWR, Don said that Alaska Natives have to "agree to disagree." He said. "As long as we recognize that each of our views has value we can have a conversation." But, he continued, "if we don't, it can get toxic like how [political debate] is on the national level."
At the AFN, he hopes that he can stress two important principles: empathy and service. Don learned those values at an early age by spending time caring for his sick grandfather, and he thinks they are essential for Alaska Native leaders and communities to impart to the younger generation.
"We need to ensure that there's a continually evolving transition of leadership in Alaska Native communities," he said. By calling their attention to the service of people like the Alaska Territorial Guardsmen, Don looks to engage more young people in the AFN.
Don will give his keynote address on Thursday, Oct. 18. He plans to honor his mother, who he says will be proud of him in a "silent, Yupik way."