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Parnell should have sent state official to NCAI in his place

Jenny Bell-Jones
OPINION: If Gov. Sean Parnell couldn't attend the Anchorage meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in June, he should have cared enough to send a senior representative. Pictured: Gov. Sean Parnell speaking to the Anchorage East Rotary Club on May 28, 2014. Richard Mauer photo

While arguments and insults are traded back and forth regarding Governor Sean Parnell’s absence at the National Congress of American Indians midterm conference, held in Anchorage June 8th through the 11th, the real problem lies in the shadows. The governor of the State of Alaska either declined to appear or failed to appear at an extremely important meeting. His failure to appear and the ramifications of this failure are far more important than where he was and whether he gave organizers any warning.

NCAI is not some kind of grass-roots social group. It is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization. Founded in 1944, it predates the existence of the State of Alaska by some 15 years. It maintains an embassy building in Washington D.C., where it regularly hosts meetings with international indigenous leaders and others. It is a well-respected organization that works hard to serve the interests of tribal communities and their governments. It maintains important partnerships with major foundations, the federal government, state governments, major business interests including prominent banking firms, and many individuals in addition to tribal governments around the United States.

The Anchorage conference was attended by tribal heads of state, members of Congress, representatives from the U.S. State Department, attorneys and business leaders from around the nation. There was a representative from the United Nations in attendance. The State of Utah considered the event sufficiently important to send the director of its Department of Indian Affairs, and I have no doubt that other states also sent representatives. Tribal leaders discussed, among other things, education, economic development, health-care, law-enforcement and water and fishing rights. All of these subjects are extremely important concerns in Alaska.

I was in attendance at the meeting with students and another faculty member. The absence of our governor was a real embarrassment for us, as I’m sure it was for other Alaskans in the room. The organizers were obviously expecting the governor, his name was on the agenda, and, if indeed an email had been sent earlier indicating that he had declined to attend, the organizers were clearly not aware that he was not coming. Tribal leadership and government officials from around the nation received a very clear negative message: the governor of Alaska places no importance whatsoever on Indian affairs.

An invitation to a state governor to attend a meeting with an organization of this stature demands more than a routine email in response. It demands attendance, if not by the governor, then by a suitable representative. If the invited governor has other pressing state business and finds himself or herself unable to attend, then they need to make sure that someone attends in their place. It is simply not acceptable to decline this kind of invitation. With all due respect to the governor’s in-laws, it is even less acceptable to decline it to take part in a personal social activity; to do suggests that a choice needed to be made between social gatherings, which the NCAI conference was not. If our governor is going to duck out of important events like this to take part in family get-togethers without even sending a substitute, then we need to be questioning what kind of job he is doing for our state.

All of the western states -- with the exception of Alaska -- maintain some form of official Indian Affairs department. At least 34 states have such an office. Even Kentucky, which has no federally recognized tribes has a Native American Heritage Commission. These states take their relationships with tribes and Native peoples seriously and they value those relationships. Alaska has 230 recognized tribes, no department of Indian Affairs, and our governor can’t even send a representative to NCAI when the meeting is located in our state.

The real question that needs to be answered is not “who lied to whom” or whether the governor was stuck in traffic or attending an anniversary party, but why he was neglecting his duty as the leader of our state? Why, when there are so many serious issues facing our tribal communities today and the relationship between tribes and the state is so difficult, did he not make absolutely sure that he either attended this meeting or send a senior representative? How much longer can we tolerate this kind of blatant disrespect towards Alaska Natives and their communities before we demand a change?

Jenny Bell-Jones teaches indigenous law at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She holds a masters degree in rural development. This commentary is her opinion alone and not that of the university.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.