FAIRBANKS -- After a bumpy start, it looks like Gov. Sarah Palin's relationship with Alaska Natives has vastly improved.
Last fall, at Alaska's largest gathering of Natives in Anchorage, then-gubernatorial candidate Sarah Palin got a polite-but-cool reception.
This week, in Fairbanks, the organizers of the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention threw out the welcome mat for the governor, now in her 10th month in office, and delegates in Fairbanks gave her a standing ovation.
The convention started Thursday and will continue through Saturday, tackling issues such as subsistence, the social and economic future of Native communities in Alaska and responding to climate change. Thousands of delegates have arrived in Fairbanks for the event.
Many of them whistled for Palin Thursday.
"I think she is making an effort to reach out to the Native community," Julie Kitka, AFN's board president, said of the governor.
During her campaign last year, Palin got in hot water with some Alaska Native corporation executives when she canceled a meeting on short notice. Also, many Natives were more favorable to Tony Knowles, the former Democratic governor running against her. He promised AFN delegates he'd offer a constitutional amendment on subsistence.
On Thursday, Palin even got a serenade.
After she walked up on the Carlson Center stage Thursday morning, flanked by Ken Johns of Ahtna Inc., an entire delegation of Hawaiian Natives who came to the convention popped up, on cue, and sang her a welcome song in their native language.
Palin gave a short, bright speech, detailing her work so far in office and her plans on rural initiatives, including the hiring of a new rural adviser in her Cabinet -- veteran Alaska newswoman Rhonda McBride, who worked a number of years for KYUK in Bethel.
"Thank you. I love you," Palin called out as she exited the stage where she was sworn into office.
PEBBLE MINE AT AFN
The Pebble project, a massive mine being pondered on state land in the Bristol Bay region, is casting a big shadow over the AFN convention this week.
For the last few days, outside the Carlson Center's front doors, volunteers wearing "Stop Pebble Mine" buttons have been gathering signatures for a citizen initiative that would allow Alaska voters to block large metallic mines from discharging certain pollutants into streams or on land.
Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell initially rejected the proposed initiative, but his decision was overturned last week by a Dillingham Superior Court judge, allowing the signature-gathering to begin.
Palin took up Pebble, albeit indirectly, in her Thursday morning speech.
She discussed the difficulties of economic development in rural Alaska due to lack of infrastructure such as roads, and the difficulty in finding local jobs.
Mining is one source of development for rural Alaska, she said.
Alaskans, she said, should allow projects on land designated for mining exploration -- such as Pebble -- a chance to get a full study.
She said the state will provide "very, very stringent" oversight while giving private landowners, including the Native corporations, a chance to develop new resource development projects.
SUBSISTENCE SPECIAL CONVENTION
AFN leaders said they plan to make a significant legal and legislative push on Native fishing and hunting rights next year.
The AFN board took the rare step of calling a special convention, dedicated to subsistence, next spring, Kitka said.
"It will be very, very intense," she said in an interview.
The AFN recently put together a legal defense fund to help pay expenses in some of the ongoing legal disputes that Alaska Natives are involved in regarding subsistence.
"There are people who are trying to put income requirements on whether you can continue your subsistence way of life," she told the AFN delegates Thursday.
The goal of the convention will be to develop legislation and a "new regulatory scheme" she said.
The dates for the convention will likely be set in December, she said.
FAIRBANKS' UNPAID HELPERS
AFN has gone bipolar -- moving its conventions between Anchorage and Fairbanks, every other year.
So it's inevitable that people have been making comparisons between how the conventions go in the two cities.
What distinguishes Fairbanks, Kitka said, is its vast pool of volunteer labor.
Anchorage does "a lot" to welcome the convention every year, she said.
In Fairbanks, much of the preconvention labor is from unpaid helpers, she said.
"You cannot believe how much help we had," she enthused Thursday morning to the delegates.
She said 25 committees composed of volunteers have been working with AFN staff for months to plan the convention.
The volunteers were swarming all over the Carlson Center on Thursday, telling people about where they could take shuttle buses, scooping up debris or just saying hello.
Watch live video from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. Saturday at www.nativefederation.org/..
Live audio coverage is available 9 a.m.-5 p.m. today and Saturday at www.knba.org.
Around the state, tune in to GCI Cable channels, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. today and 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday; in Anchorage, Mat-Su, Kenai and Seward, it's Channel 1; in Homer, Channel 6.
In Anchorage, tune in to KNBA, 90.3 FM, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Saturday; for areas outside Anchorage, check your local public radio station schedule. Listen to and watch the AFN convention