The state’s largest Alaska Native organization declared its opposition to a constitutional convention Saturday, saying rural Alaska could have the most to lose if a convention is called.
The Alaska Federation of Natives also called for a potential reduction in the amount of fish caught in Area M, a state-managed fishery off the Alaska Peninsula, in order to protect salmon runs that have crashed on the state’s two largest rivers, the Yukon and Kuskokwim.
And, after passing several other measures, the organization voted in executive session to endorse Lisa Murkowski in the U.S. Senate race and Rep. Mary Peltola for reelection to the U.S. House, after Peltola recently became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress.
The Alaska Federation of Natives took those stances as part of the resolution process that wrapped up its annual three-day convention on Saturday at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. It was AFN’s first in-person conference since the pandemic curtailed large physical gatherings more than two years ago.
Noticeably absent from Saturday’s debate, and the convention itself, were two longtime members of the Alaska Federation of Natives covering two major regions of the state.
Doyon Inc., which is the biggest private landowner in Alaska and represents Native shareholders in the Interior, and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., representing Native shareholders from the oil-rich North Slope region, are currently not members of AFN, officials with the organization said.
ASRC’s board in 2019 approved its withdrawal from the organization, citing long-standing tension with AFN. Doyon, which in 2020 said it was questioning its membership, also is not currently a dues-paying member, AFN officials said Saturday.
The organization’s vote on its constitutional convention stance passed without opposition.
It puts the politically powerful group into the debate over whether the public should approve a convention in the November election. The question comes before Alaska voters every 10 years, and has been soundly defeated in recent decades. The outcome is expected to be closer this year.
“A constitutional convention would be expensive and dangerous,” the AFN measure said. “It would open the entire Constitution for revision on a wide range of critical issues and pose risks to tribal/Alaska Native interests that are embedded in the Constitution with the likelihood of delegates with views that are antagonistic to those interests.”
The Native federation, in its measure, said that if a convention is held, the negative impacts could include reduced funding for rural public schools, threats to subsistence benefits and tribal sovereignty, and the potential loss of the Power Cost Equalization program that provides help with sky-high rural power costs for residents.
Republican former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, chair of Convention YES, said in an interview Saturday that a convention could lead to constitutional changes that benefit rural Alaska, such as increasing the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend by reinstating a full statutory formula for its payment.
“We really do need a constitutional convention in order to help rural Alaska,” he said. “A full PFD will benefit all Alaskans.”
Conservative groups have led support for holding a constitutional convention, saying it’s time for a new look at Alaska’s governing structures to improve areas like the process of determining the Permanent Fund dividend amount and education. Opponents have said the PFD issue is being used to mask other priorities that conservative groups would like to act on, including opposition to abortion and school choice.
Also, following a tense debate, AFN on Saturday decided to ask the state Board of Fisheries to take steps that could reduce salmon fishing opportunities in Area M, a state management fishing area near the end of the Alaska Peninsula.
Specifically, AFN wants the state to reduce the “intercept” by fishermen of chum and king salmon in the June fishery there that may be headed to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
The emotional issue underscores the anxiety over collapsed salmon stocks in Western Alaska and the Interior, threatening a fish that for eons has fed many villages in the state, even as salmon runs in the Bristol Bay region to the south continue to thrive.
The resolution was introduced by the Tanana Chiefs Conference, representing tribes in the Interior; Kawerak, a nonprofit providing social services to Alaska Natives in the Nome region; and Bethel Native Corp., the village corporation for the Southwest Alaska hub community.
Representatives from communities in the Aleutian and Alaska Peninsula regions told the conference delegates they felt they were unfairly being targeted. They point to ocean conditions and climate change as the reason for the runs’ collapse.
“This effort is akin to a village being on fire and setting the next village on fire because that’s where the wind is coming from,” said Nathan McCowan, president and chief executive of the village corporation for St. George in the Bering Sea.
McCowan played a lead role in speaking out on the floor against the resolution. Highlighting its significance, more than 20 delegates talked about the issue, including some who spoke in their Native language before switching to English.
Delegates in favor of the measure said they weren’t trying to shut down the Area M fishery. They said they wanted to find a balance that ensures that more salmon have a chance to escape nets and reach their regions, before rivers see a complete collapse of salmon stocks such as those experienced in West Coast rivers. Chum salmon catches are at historically high levels in Area M, the resolution said.
Steve Ginnis, traditional chief of Fort Yukon in the Interior, said it’s not a “Native versus Native” issue. But he said villages that have endured fishing closures in recent years have borne the brunt of the collapsing runs.
“The way I look at this, we’re talking about fairness,” Ginnis said.