FAIRBANKS -- The Alaska Federation of Natives voted to endorse Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign Thursday, prompting a renewed attack from her Republican rival.
Senate-race politics figured large on the opening day of the three-day AFN convention, with all three candidates looking to score blows in the final two weeks of the election.
Murkowski's campaign co-chairman, Byron Mallott, introduced her in a fiery speech that blasted Republican candidate Joe Miller's criticism of a controversial program that gives no-bid federal contracts to Native corporations and tribes.
Alaska Native corporations have "placed our billions in this state," said Mallott, board member for Sealaska Corp. As for any candidate for statewide office who calls those institutions a special interest, "I will have nothing to do with him."
Miller's campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying a political action committee composed of Alaska Native corporations is a "PR front group" for Murkowski. The group, Alaskans Standing Together, says that it's operating within the law and Miller is trying to "handcuff the Alaska Native community from having a voice in this campaign."
On Thursday, Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said it was no surprise Murkowski won a nod from AFN.
"The group is made up of Native Corporations, several of which are illegally funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to prop up Murkowski's campaign," Randy DeSoto said in an e-mail. "She is their bought and paid for candidate. The only question is how much did it cost them and how much will it cost the taxpayers?"
Murkowski told reporters Thursday that nothing annoys her like Miller's claims that she has somehow been "bought" by Alaska Native interests because of her general support for the U.S. Small Business Administration's 8(a) program. She pointed to the 3 1/2-page AFN resolution endorsing her that praises her for everything from her service on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to efforts to curb teen suicide.
Democrat Scott McAdams looked to gain ground with rural voters by parking his "McAdams Mobile" -- a tan, exhaust-coughing mobile home -- across the road from the convention center.
There, McAdams vowed to shake 1,000 hands at the convention and talked about the need for the federal government to reach out to Alaska's more than 200 tribes. McAdams has called for broad recognition of tribes' authority as sovereign governments and said at an Anchorage forum on Alaska Native issues that he supports the 8(a) program as it exists today.
While praising Native corporations for bringing money and business savvy to the state, McAdams said tribes are "perhaps best positioned" to sustain Alaska's villages in the future.
The Alaska congressional delegation speaks at the convention each year, giving Murkowski the advantage of stage time in front of hundreds if not thousands of rural voters.
The endorsement came in a quick voice vote, followed by standing applause. "I will fight for you as long as I am able. I love you all," Murkowski told the crowd, which is loosely split into groups based on their regional corporations.
The Obama administration has fumbled efforts to fix federal oversight of subsistence hunting and fishing in Alaska, according to a proposed resolution from the AFN board of directors.
The move comes a year after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told AFN delegates the existing subsistence program is "broken." The Interior and Agriculture departments recently released a list of recommendations to improve the program -- such as adding two rural subsistence users to the federal subsistence board. But those changes fall far short of the sweeping overhaul sought by leaders of the state's largest Alaska Native coalition.
Under the changes sought at this year's convention by the 37-member AFN board:
• Alaska Natives who move to cities would still get a preference when it comes to subsistence hunting and fishing on federal land.
• The feds, rather than the state, would manage subsistence on more than 40 million acres of Native-owned land.
The Interior Department has said it's not proposing those ideas or other changes to federal law because they fall outside its authority.
A resolution proposed by the AFN board and headed for a vote at the convention this week says the results of the Interior Department's subsistence review "fall far short of what is needed to protect our subsistence way of life and is hereby rejected as insufficient."
"President Barack Obama promised, in both his campaign and once elected to office, a time of transformational change that would improve our lives in real concrete ways, and such change has not happened," says a copy of the resolution provided by AFN President Julie Kitka.
Subsistence rights -- the decades-old battle over who gets the first opportunity to hunt and fish on public land -- dominated last year's AFN convention. This year's convention theme is "village survival," and Kitka said subsistence will return as the "premiere" issue of the convention.
AFN leaders are calling for congressional oversight hearings on the issue and will push for an act of Congress to overhaul the system, she said.
"When I look out there, I see 5,000 stories," Jeanie Greene told the convention crowd moments after winning one of the AFN's top honors.
The federation named the "Heartbeat Alaska" host Citizen of the Year on Thursday for a career that's spanned 20 years of filming life in rural Alaska.
"When I began it was really tough. There was no stories about Natives except the drunks with black eyes in the paper," she said backstage, holding a headdress she was given along with the award.
An Inupiat who grew up in Sitka, Greene said she was raised on stories of reindeer herding and ice-breaking. "I wanted to share the Alaska that I knew."
Greene said she got her start in 1990 as a reporter for KIMO Channel 13 in Anchorage, launching "Heartbeat Alaska" about two years later.
Greene has the biggest Facebook fan base she's seen, said Nancy Barnes, president of Eyak Corp. and an aide to AFN co-chairman Sen. Albert Kookesh. "We're always telling her she should run for office."
U.S. Rep. Don Young won the Denali Award, which is given to a non-Native for contributions to the Alaska Native community.