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Alaska Federation of Natives: Emphasis on politics with an eye on elections

Jill Burke
Loren Holmes photo

"Native people are the heart and soul of our state," Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka told attendees at the opening of the 2012 Alaska Federation of Natives convention at the Dena'ina Convention Center in downtown Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, on Thursday. "Our greatest strengths as Native people have been our cultural values and our strength in working together."

For as great as the diversity is among peoples and regions, Aleuts of southwest Alaska, Eskimos of the Arctic coastlines, and Athabascan Indians of the state's interior, the Native community shares a host of adversities. High costs of living, sexual and physical abuse, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, poverty, access to education, access to traditional foods -- these and other barriers have for years been complex problems with grudging, if any, solutions.  

Through a unified, unrelenting political voice, the state's Native community has the strongest influence, several leaders said. Unity came when U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was under threat during the 2010 election. A Native voting block helped return her to office after a hard fought battle against tea party Republican candidate Joe Miller.

Current political priorities facing Alaska Natives, enumerated by Kitka, include:

  • Regardless of who wins November's general election, the "fiscal cliff" all Americans face; 
  • Fighting to protect Native American Programs from budget cuts;
  • Encouraging Congress to create revenue sharing for offshore oil production, so projects like Shell's Arctic plays in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea benefit nearby communities; 
  • Dealing with declining oil production through the trans-Alaska pipeline -- and the effect the ensuing loss of revenue will have on Alaskans.

Urging Natives to vote 

Many of these topics will be the subjects of focused work sessions Thursday afternoon, and draft resolutions to be presented and voted on later in the convention. 

Jackie Johnson-Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, reiterated, as she has in years past, the importance of the Native vote. "Make sure that every possible person who can vote turns out," she told the crowd.

Alaska's politicians are taking note. Anchorage's mayor, the state's governor and its lone representative in Congress each appeared Thursday morning.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan focused on education, critical of the state's self-imposed standards, which he believes are woefully low compared to the rest of the nation. For a city mayor, it was a topic delivered with a distinctly broad, statewide appeal.

The state is beyond the ability to return to the days of subsistence living and relying on tourist income, Sullivan said. "We need to do a much better job developing our human resource. There is nothing more powerful in transforming an economy (than) having an educated workforce," he told attendees.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, accompanied by his wife, Sandy, focused on themes he's touched on for four consecutive years -- the right of Alaskans to feel safe in their homes and communities, and his commitment to boost law enforcement in rural communities, linked to his "Choose Respect" campaign.

Pushing the theme of safety even further, the First Lady spoke ominously of the prey rural children have been during past AFN conventions, objects of would-be sex traffickers looking to enslave them. Murkowski has spoken at AFN  on this issue before. But Sandy Parnell's impassioned remarks offered a sobering reminder that Alaska's youth is still at risk. "As families, the best protection we can give our children is a loving home," she said.

Salmon woes statewide 

Her husband listed a variety of ways in which he and his administration are improving the lives of Alaska Natives across the state, taking credit for better schools, new school construction, scholarships for college and job training.

This summer was tough on salmon fisherman across the state, and Parnell told conference-goers that he hadn't forgotten. "I have been very concerned about how some of you will get by," he said before rattling off how he's trying to make things better for the Alaskans who missed out on income or food due to fishing closures on several major rivers. Parnell pushed for federal disaster declarations for the Yukon and Kuskokwim River regions and in Cook Inlet, and he is waiting on Congress to make the money available to help affected families. And he called for more research into why salmon aren't returning to their spawning grounds as expected. 

To aid rural Alaskans, he said he's also interested in promoting small businesses and aggressive energy policies, while moving communities away from high-cost diesel and heating fuel.

Thursday's keynote speaker has lived the barriers everyone at the convention aims to wipe out. Despite an early start in an unsafe home plagued by drugs and alcohol, Carol Wren found stability through the care of relatives who offered her a safe place to stay, discipline, love and guidance. An Inupiaq born in Kotzebue and raised in Dillingham, she now works in Anchorage. She offered opening remarks in three Native languages -- Dena'ina, Yupik and Inupiaq in honor of where she's been and where she now resides. 

She recalled for the crowd how her families often worked more than one job to put food on the table yet still found time to be good parents and instill good values; how at age 8 she tried and got sick from peppermint snuff; how she was exposed to the impacts of binge drinking, and her own risky behaviors as an angst-ridden, defiant teenager. Yet with the support of caring, capable family members, she made it through. 

"We have the solutions within us," she said, wrapping up her speech. “We define our own success."

Young sees 'major problems'

U.S. Rep. Don Young, the only member of Alaska's congressional delegation up for re-election next month, gave one of his shortest addresses ever at AFN, kicking it off with a nod to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The land claims settlement gave Alaska Natives the control over lands and established village and regional corporations as economic engines intended to benefit entire communities. And the success of ANSCA, he said, wasn't the law itself, but what Alaska Natives did with it in the years that followed.

"It was never meant to work. But it did. And you did it," he said.

Yet, he conceded that Alaska Natives have "major problems" to confront in 2012:

  • Continued attacks from the Lower 48 on government contracting preferences unique to Alaska Native companies, known as 8a contracts; 
  • Management issues related to subsistence hunting and fishing; and 
  • Passage of the Violence Against Women Act. 

Young cautioned Alaska Natives to not seek an alliance with the federal government as a fix to the subsistence issue. "You're stepping into the frying pan," he warned, suggesting that by doing so they will lose more rights than they will gain. 

"How do you solve it? I happen to believe you ought to have the authority to manage that species of fish (salmon), because you are the only ones that lose anything," he told the crowd, adding that he thought the state should create a management commission comprised of a representative from every village along a given river corridor.

The topic of subsistence and how it’s managed is expected to be a controversial and heated topic at this year's AFN convention, with several work sessions dedicated to it. The convention continues through Saturday.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com