Alaska News

Jewell charts a course with Alaska Natives beyond the Obama administration

FAIRBANKS – Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the state's biggest gathering of Alaska Native people of new efforts to work with tribes, and she promised that her involvement won't end when President Barack Obama leaves office in January.

"I will join you on the rabble-rousing side when I'm done with this job," Jewell said to hoots and applause.

She was welcomed to the Alaska Federation of Natives' 50th convention with a song about Denali the mountain written and sung by a 95-year-old Athabascan elder.

Poldine Carlo sang a celebratory tune inspired when Obama renamed Mount McKinley during his 2015 visit to Alaska. It is now close to what Koyukon people called it.

"I wanted someone to help me compose the song, but it seems like no one did. So I did the best I could," Carlo said.

"Denali, Denali," she sang in Koyukon Athabascan. "You have taken your name back." The crowd went nuts for it.

Jewell, wearing a kuspuk made by Kivalina tribal leader Millie Hawley and polar bear earrings carved from walrus tusk, said she loved the song. The earrings, by an Inupiaq student artist in Barrow, were an intentional choice to acknowledge that walrus ivory is valued and allowed even as elephant ivory is banned, Jewell said.

[More coverage from the Alaska Federation of Natives convention]

The Interior secretary, on her fifth official visit to Alaska, announced a new emphasis in working with tribes that is being structured to carry on into the next administration.

Her secretarial order directs federal land managers to work with tribes on every front. She said she is identifying career federal employees to continue the work.

The order covers the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation.

Land managers must identify opportunities to work with tribes and to make them partners in managing lands and waterways, under the order.

"This is an expectation of mine and of the administration's that there are important opportunities to work with tribes and important knowledge that will help us to do a better job," Jewell said after her speech.

The directive does not make tribes co-managers, which is a more formal relationship with a specific legal meaning. Rather, it requires federal managers to consult with tribes and figure out new ways to make Native people partners in the management and maintenance of federal lands.

Obama supports tribal self-determination and has had a nation-to-nation relationship with tribes, she said. The order was in the works for "quite a long time."

Julie Kitka, AFN president, called it a "historic order." It will remain in effect after President Obama and his team leave office, unless a future secretary rescinds it.

That's true of other tribal initiatives too, she said. The annual tribal nations conference that the Obama White House held all eight years will continue unless the next president decides otherwise, Jewell said.

"And if they think about undoing them, I want you to make a lot of noise," Jewell said.

Under the new order, land managers must look to tribes for help in managing fish and wildlife, cultural sites, plant collection and public information. Tribes could be asked to help maintain trails, run youth education programs or demolish old buildings, under the order.

Already in Alaska, the Fish and Wildlife Service works with the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission on when to allow salmon fishing.

"Your voices really matter. And I am not kidding. They really, really matter," Jewell said.

The directive covers all tribes, not just those in Alaska.

Obama's visit last year called attention to the impacts of climate change, which Jewell noted is hitting Alaska Native villages such as Newtok and Shishmaref particularly hard.

[Shishmaref votes to relocate from eroding barrier island to mainland]

Much of rural Alaska is feeling the impact, she said. Caribou migration patterns are changing. Sinkholes are opening in permafrost that impact berry picking. Thinning sea ice prevents some hunts.

Native leaders are building on the body of knowledge about the changing land. That information will be vital in the new collaborations, she said.

Jewell also touched on the new-to-Alaska mechanism for tribes to put lands into federal trust. It is a way for tribes to hold onto land, protect it from taxes, and provide a base for governing, she said later.

"That's kind of a big deal," Jewell told the convention. In the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 11 people have been trained to work with Alaska tribes on land status, she said. Seven applications already have come in.

Native people helped her be a better secretary, said Jewell, getting emotional on stage.

"You've shared your cultures and traditions openly," she said. "You've got the best jokes."

The Obama administration has three months left.

"I'm not counting down. I'm using it as a call to action," Jewell said. "We will run through the tape at the end of this administration at full speed to get as much done as we possibly can."

Jewell, who is from the Seattle area, said she vacationed many times in Alaska and intends to do so again.

"It's my favorite part of the world to be in and it's a place that I'll be returning to when I finish this job."

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.