Sean Parnell's failure to deliver the opening remarks to the National Congress of American Indians last week was an embarrassing and hurtful snub to all Alaskans. The event was hosted by the Alaska Federation of Natives and was packed with 1,000 attendees representing over 100 tribes from Alaska, Canada, and the Lower 48.
His excuse? Caught in traffic. Ten minutes later, phones and all other lines of communication to the governor were cut off, leaving conference organizers scrambling to fill his spot. Many Alaskans and honored guests made huge sacrifices and traveled great distances to our state for this important event. Yet our governor could not welcome our guests and fellow Alaskans. This insult is on par with EPA Chief Gina McCarthy's disparaging comments made about gifts given to her while on a visit to Alaska. Unlike McCarthy, Parnell has yet to issue an apology or even an explanation to the conference attendees.
The governor's absence is symptomatic of a larger problem infecting tribal and state relations. For decades Alaska Natives have sought a closer relationship, or at least respectful dialogue with the state to resolve contentious issues that have long perpetuated a poisonous division within our state. Issues such as running water, domestic violence, trespass, over-aggressive prison sentences, despicable graduation rates, disproportionate distribution of Alaska's resource wealth, quality health care, language preservation, wildlife management, public safety concerns, subsistence and self-determination.
Unfortunately, the Parnell administration has done little to develop these relationships. The governor propagates the rural-urban divide by refusing to recognize, encourage, or acknowledge their unique political status. Why is it Congress and the Office of the President formally recognized the aboriginal residents of Alaska for decades, but the governor refuses to do the same? We need to develop a respectful dialogue between tribes and the administration in order to move forward together and resolve ongoing issues that divide us. The lack of a productive relationship between the tribes and the state has resulted in the federal government stepping in to resolve conflicts, this is not the best way to resolve our problems. Coming from an administration that openly despises "federal overreach" this result is the worst-case scenario. Yet, rather than engage the tribal government, tribes continue to be overlooked in decision-making processes that directly impact them.
A major theme of the NCAI event was "get out the Native vote," encouraging voters to get informed, and of course to vote. However, becoming informed is difficult when the incumbent does not participate. Governor Parnell refuses to face Alaskans in public forums and debates. He cannot face Alaskans and defend the deficit spending, decreased revenue, the failed Choose Respect campaign, among other positions he has taken during his six years in office. Rather, he appears to reserve personal appearances for ribbon cutting ceremonies, bill signings, and private fundraisers. These public debates are critical for Alaskans to hear the candidates side-by-side addressing issues impacting the state.
Governor Parnell's absences are no longer a surprise; they now come as expected behavior. His non-engagement with tribal government is one of many reasons the divide between the administration and the tribes persists and even widens. Alaskans deserve a governor who chooses respect when it comes to holding commitments and meeting with the people he represents. No more failures to communicate with the people of Alaska.
Right now Alaska needs clarity, determination, resolve and fresh energy from a leader who can lead by example and show command, not timidity, in the face of adversity.
Craig Fleener is an independent candidate for lieutenant governor. He is Gwich'in Athabascan from Fort Yukon and a former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
By CRAIG FLEENER