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Alaska News

AFN delegates set Native agenda; politicians talk about Trump and ‘Mount McKinley,’ Twitter and climate

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: October 23, 2017
  • Published October 21, 2017

For hours Saturday morning and into the afternoon, delegates to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention worked through their list of carefully worded and reworded resolutions on heath and safety, subsistence and land, economics and tribes.

There was little debate. Most were not controversial. Some were tweaked to clarify or strengthen the group's agenda and policies.

In a sense, resolutions are forever, Ben Mallott, an AFN vice president, told the crowd at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. They remain policy and advocacy items for the organization until the work is accomplished, or delegates vote a new course in a later convention.

One measure that will set the stage for the 2018 election season and beyond was sensitive. Delegates went into a closed-door session to debate a new policy on political endorsements.

In the past, endorsements could either be made by the board of directors or could rise up from the delegates, said Greg Razo, an AFN board member who chairs its resolution committee. In 2016, the AFN board decided on its own to endorse Hillary Clinton, the first time in the organization's history that it endorsed a presidential candidate.

The convention delegates, after the closed-door session, decided on a new policy to only allowed political endorsements for statewide and presidential candidates approved on the convention floor. And three-fourths of the delegates must support the endorsement.

Some measures underscored the role and authority of Alaska tribes, a note that was struck throughout the convention.

Many resolutions concerned health, safety and welfare. One seeks to recognize the harm to land and structures over time by climate change and thawing permafrost as a "slow-developing disaster." By changing federal law to add that category, Alaska communities like Newtok that are being destroyed by climate change could get disaster relief.

Convention delegates called for the Justice Department to investigate a series of problems including illegal traffic stops, the use of deadly force and disparate fines. They agreed to urge the Legislature to pass a balanced budget, but took out a reference to an approach that included budget cuts. They called for state and federally funding for culturally appropriate drug and alcohol treatment "to restore vibrant Alaska Native communities." They called for a new oil spill response initiative.

In all, they approved almost three dozen resolutions.

AFN staff then follows up. They send resolutions to key agencies and leaders. They use them in high level meetings such as with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The items form the AFN agenda.

Rep. Don Young: 'I have never twittered'

In a folksy unscripted speech, U.S. Rep. Don Young urged delegates at the  convention – especially those who live in villages — to turn off their televisions and devices for a couple of hours a day, go outside and visit each other.

Visit a village now at 5 p.m. everything seems dead, he said. People are looking at their screens.

When his family gathers in his Alaska home village of Fort Yukon, Young said, he makes his grandkids switch off. At first they are like alcoholics without alcohol, so nervous without their phones. Then "they learn something," he said. Young has a workshop there. "They learn how to cut. They learn how to weld. They play and work together. "

He joked about his own resistance to social media, how that makes him "the smartest congressman in Congress."

"I have a cell phone that is used as a cell phone and they better not call me," Young said. "I have never twittered, wiggled or giggled. I have no idea what I am doing. That makes me really smart as a congressman because everyone gets in trouble in Congress because of their cell phone."

Everyone might want to heed that approach, he said.

Keep it Denali

Sure, said U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, President Trump should not tweet or at least not so much. And, Sullivan told the AFN convention, he doesn't like it when the president insults people.

"On the other hand, I truly believe that the president and his administration are fully focused on helping Alaska especially as it relates to our economy and more jobs," the senator said.

He described an hour-plus meeting that he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski had a few months back with Trump and Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke in the Oval Office.

"We had maps and we were talking all about Alaska issues. So many issues. Our fisheries. Whaling, the culture of whaling in Alaska. The economy. The military," Sullivan said.

They brought up Obama administration actions that they said hurt Alaska, such as a block on the King Cove-Cold Bay road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Sullivan said.

On each one, Trump asked Zinke: "Can we change that and help Alaska?"

Trump thought of one on his own. Wasn't the name of a big mountain in Alaska changed by executive order? he asked, referring to Denali, the former Mount McKinley named for the president from Ohio.

"Lisa — Sen. Murkowski — and I jumped over the desk. We said no, no!" said Sullivan, who is originally from Ohio.

Why? Trump asked.

"The Alaska Native people named that mountain over 10,000 years ago," Sullivan said he told him. "Denali, that was the name."

All about renewables

When Sen. Lisa Murkowski took the AFN stage, she spoke about climate change and about energy innovations being done all over Alaska.

Erosion is increasing, she said. Communities are sinking. Wildlife and fish migration patterns are changing. Sea ice is melting and permafrost too.

The problem extends past coastal communities like Newtok and Kivalina to Interior villages.

"The impacts of climate change fall disproportionately in rural Alaska," Murkowski said.

Alaska is changing how it gets and uses energy that powers industry, homes and businesses, she said.

Kodiak Island, not much bigger than hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, relies on wind, hydropower and batteries for storage – a smart system that is almost 100 percent renewable energy sources, she said.

"This is how a resilient grid is built," Murkowski said.

Improving lives in Alaska is not just about improving technology, she said. It also involves capturing the voices of Alaskans with local knowledge, with traditional knowledge.

Murkowski said she is working on legislation to formalize the inclusion of Alaska Native voices into the formation of policy.

The three-day convention wrapped up Saturday night with a banquet, capping a week that also included the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth conference and a tribal leaders meeting.