Gov. Sarah Palin recently announced that she intends to reject $288 million, or about 31 percent, of the $930 million in federal stimulus money available to Alaska. The Legislature may vote to accept the money anyway, but she has also held out the possibility that she may veto state legislative appropriations that accept such federal money. If the state rejects the money, the impact will fall most heavily on low-income and minority Alaskans. Over $170 million is for education, including immunizations, nutrition, special education and other assistance to school districts with large numbers of low-income students.
Per the 2000 Census, 20 percent of all Alaska Natives live in poverty, compared with 7 percent of all non-Native Alaskans; the 2010 Census will show little change in these figures. Unemployment in most villages exceeds 75 percent, leaving only subsistence activities to provide basic food.
Non-Native test scores on math and language are almost double the scores of Native students. Native high school drop-out rates are almost double those of non-Natives. I know of no group of Americans with a greater need for educational support than Alaska Natives, yet they are the people who will be most hurt by the governor's intent. Little wonder that so many professional educators in Alaska object strenuously to her plan.
Fuel oil costs for heating in rural villages have risen to more than $6 a gallon. In one village last summer, a gallon of gasoline cost $11; and it is impossible to practice subsistence without gasoline for outboard motors and snowmachines. In addition, the Palin administration has consistently tried to weaken laws that protect rural subsistence rights, threatening the entire food base of the Bush.
The Palin administration's long-term energy plan is well-intended, but by the time it has any practical effect on villages, many of them will have disappeared through out-migration. If rural residents cannot feed their families, heat their homes or educate their children, they will have to move. They will go primarily to Alaska's cities where they will be forced into slum housing -- and still not be able to get jobs.
The resulting socio-economic crisis will pull down the well-being of everyone, including the non-Native urban majority. Realize it or not, we all have a vested interest in the villages. The great historical issue in this picture is nothing less than the survival of human communities and cultures that have existed here for at least 13,000 years.
If Gov. Palin continues to reject any part of the money, AFN and the Native community will urge her to accept those funds that would benefit Alaska Natives and contract them to Native organizations for implementation.
If she refuses that option as well, we have requested that the Obama administration support a technical amendment to the stimulus package that allows the federal government route the funding directly to local, federally recognized tribes. In Alaska, we have more than 230 recognized tribes, as well as 12 regional nonprofit consortia, which contract with the U.S. for many human service programs. They are perfectly capable of administering such funds.
Routing federal stimulus money through state governments recognizes a government-to-government relationship between the federal and state governments. The relationship between the United States and the federally recognized tribes is also one of government to government. If one government refuses to help some of the neediest people in America, why should another government, which knows its own people's needs better than anyone else, not be allowed to step in and do the job?
Julie Kitka is president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
By JULIE KITKA