AFN Convention opens with Fairbanks Four potlatch
On the evening of Oct. 19, a Welcome Potlatch sponsored by Doyon, Limited was held at the Big Dipper Ice Arena, to greet delegates and attendees of the 2016 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, and kick off the week’s events.
From Oct. 19 to Oct. 22 Fairbanks played host to this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. This year’s convention theme was “Reflect, Refresh, Renew,” and was only the sixth time in the Convention’s 50-year history that the event has been held in Fairbanks.
As the opening event of the Convention, the Potlatch buzzed with energy. More than 2,000 people filled the seats, with elders and honored guests given priority seating on the covered ice. Traditional food, including frybread, salmon and moose head soup, was distributed to the evening’s attendees.
A secondary reason for the energy in the building was the evening’s hosts and honored guests, Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts. The men, who have come to be known as the Fairbanks Four, spent nearly two decades behind bars, convicted of the 1997 murder of 15-year old John Hartman.
On Dec. 17, 2015, the four men were released from 18 years of wrongful incarceration. The Potlatch, while a welcome event for the entire convention, also served to recognize the groups and individuals who had worked so tirelessly to prove the men’s innocence.
Chair of the Tanana Chiefs Conference Justice Task Force, the Reverend Shirley Lee, led a prayer and the opening remarks of the evening. Lee acknowledged the efforts of the Alaska Innocence Project, as well as many other supporters, in obtaining freedom for the four men.
Following Lee’s remarks, each of the men spoke about their lives since their exoneration last December, and their individual struggles and triumphs, as well as taking time to thank individual supporters and the Fairbanks Native community as a whole.
“If it weren’t for all of you guys, we’d still be in jail,” said Eugene Vent, speaking first. “I’ve been out for ten months. I’m a 36-year-old dealing with issues that 18-year-olds deal with.”
While George Frese spoke, his grandson pulled on his shirt and reached up for the microphone. Frese’s daughter Tiliisia Sisto was three years old when he went to jail in 1997, and gave birth to his two grandchildren while he was imprisoned.
“You guys continually gave us hope. Your support and your love gave us hope,” said Frese. “We always knew everything was going to be alright, we just didn’t know when.”
Among those individually recognized on Wednesday night was UAF Communication & Journalism professor Brian O’Donoghue. When the men were convicted in 1997, O’Donoghue was a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Although he wasn’t initially involved in covering the arrest and trial of the men, his casual research of the case sparked a much more serious investigation of the facts.
O’Donoghue would eventually leave the News-Miner to teach full time at UAF, using the Hartman murder as a case study to teach his Investigative Journalism class. His nearly 15 years of investigation into the case would eventually lead him to being called to the witness stand during the 2015 hearings that would grant the men their freedom.
After being presented with a pile of gifts, including a plaque, a small model of a dog sled, gloves, beaded jewelry and wall art, O’Donoghue knelt down to sign the large banner which had previously been hoisted at Fairbanks Four support rallies, fundraisers and protests.
Other individuals recognized included April Monroe Frick, author of TheFairbanksFour.com and a close friend of the four men, and Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence Project, as well as the men’s six other legal representatives. The men also recognized several individuals who could not be present, including US Senator Lisa Murkowski, who voiced her support for their exoneration both in Alaska and in Washington, DC, and the late Shirley Diementieff, prominent Athabascan activist and Doyon, Limited board member.
At the close of the event, UAF Vice Chancellor Evon Peter, of Arctic Village, and Travis Cole, of Allakaket, led the attendees of the potlatch in traditional songs and dances. Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent danced near the center of the group- free men, encircled by their friends, family and supporters.