Alaska Federation of Natives celebrate 50 years
The convention draws thousands of delegates from across the state and is thus a must on the schedules of all major state political figures – Alaska’s congressional delegation is on hand as are heads of various federal and state government agencies, and state dignitaries including the governor.
The AFN began with the goal of reclaiming ancestral lands. Since 1966 it has become a forum to collaborate on common issues that tribes face with federal, state and local governments as well as social ills like alcoholism and domestic violence that affect the people.
“We took the heat, the criticism, the negative editorials,” Emil Notti, one of the early founders of the AFN and a key-note speaker, recalled.
A half-century ago, then the Athabaskan president of the Cook Inlet Native Association, Notti called for the first statewide meeting of Alaska Natives and their organizations. The Chief of Tyonek village, another Athabaskan tribe, provided funding for the meeting from the proceeds of a recent $13 million oil and gas lease on its reserve.
The work of Notti and other elders brought about the passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that protects Native land rights. This act was deemed a success for aboriginal rights, but there are still unresolved issues surrounding inclusion of today’s Native youth.
A rally cry that Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, newly-elected chief of King Island Tribal Council and a former legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, raised as she delivered the second keynote address as the “emerging Native leader” representing the future of the federation.
“All of us I think who were born after the deadline feel left out and unimportant, especially those who don’t have parents willing to give a few shares until they die,” Alvanna-Stimpfle quoted her tribe’s former chief. “It takes an honest young man to share his emotions, and those are heavy emotions,” she added.
In a speech full of emotion and tears, Alvanna-Stimpfle also highlighted other challenges continuing to face Alaska Natives. “The historical trauma that my community has experienced is still with us today,” Alvanna-Stimpfle said. “And it manifests itself in the social ills of poverty, of alcoholism, unemployment, domestic violence and sexual assault.”
Alvanna-Stimpfle also brought the audience to its feet singling out each group—elders, adults and youth. “I urge you all to be the change you want to see in your community and your state, cause it’s all we got,” she said.
She urged AFN board members to create a candidate training school at the convention and train Alaska Natives to run for public office and to support each other to replace the state legislature. “We must be ready to run for office,” Alvanna-Stimpfle said. “We must be ready to do the political fight of our lives for our future [and to say] ‘We’re not going anywhere, we’re protectors of this land.’”
Alvanna-Stimpfle also laughingly shouted, “What do I have to do run for Governor?” during part of her speech as well. That drew some laughter as Governor Bill Walker had addressed the attendees shortly prior to the keynote addresses and was still in the audience.
Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, an Alaska Native, followed Alvanna-Stimpfle on stage for a few words and praised both the hard work of the elders like Notti, and the energy of new leaders like Alvanna-Stimpfle.
“We heard from Emil [Notti]. Just think about what that generation faced, the incredible odds and how they were overcome,” Mallott said. “Megan [Alvanna-Stimpfle] gives us not just a peek into what our future is made of, she gave us a sense that our future is in good hands.”
Arctic and Climate Change
Mark Brzezinski, director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, recently formed by the White House, stepped on stage and asked Alaska’s Native governments to get involved in order to strengthen and integrate arctic observations and data sharing.
Brzezinski stressed the importance of Alaska and Alaska Native knowledge and experiences to the future of the entire country. He reported on the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial that was held Sept. 28 in Washington D.C., following the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s visit to Alaska, to continue the commitments the president made after seeing receding glaciers and villages eroding into the sea first-hand.
“It was a meeting of necessity, it was a meeting of urgency,” Brzezinski said of the ministerial that included representatives from 27 countries. “One of the outputs of the president’s visit to Alaska last year was that it was clear that we needed a process, an international process for dealing with the looming crisis.”
Brzezinski called the many issues facing the Alaskan Arctic – sea-level rise, coastal erosion and loss of habitat and changes in migration patterns of wildlife that people depend on for subsistence—as a “foreshadow for us all in the Lower 48 and beyond.”
Brzezinski told the audience, “I really hope, I pray, that the Alaska Native voice continues with the end of this administration. What you think, what you feel, what you experience in the Arctic is critical to informing the best arctic policy we can develop.”
Politicians and Elections
The largest gathering of Alaskans within the state brought out many current politicians and those hoping for their chance to represent residents of the Great Land, indigenous or and nonindigenous alike. Prior to Lt. Gov. Mallott, Gov. Bill Walker addressed the AFN speaking predictably about the budget crisis and recent cap of the Permanent Fund Dividend and reduction of payouts by 50 percent.
“It’s been painful,” Walker said. “But we ran for governor to help fix Alaska,” referring to Mallott and himself and the compromise they made to join their two campaigns for governor to win the election.
“We still have a vision for Alaska that works together for the good of the economy and to rise together,” Walker said. He remarked that “we’re at the halfway mark” of the administration and that “we’re here to find out what we can do better, to tell you we need to pull together, to rise together and to thank you for all you do for Alaska.”
In the same vein Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young addressed the crowd, held side hearings, re-election campaign events or made time available to talk with constituents.
In addition to hosting the field congressional subcommittee hearing on the ban of African elephant ivory and its side effect on Alaska Native ivory art, Sullivan stressed that he is working to raise awareness in Congress about the more than 30 villages that still don’t have running water or sewers.
Sullivan talked about the need to put the $1.4 billion federal that are available nationwide to work and build new systems. “The bottom line is we have to get our federal agencies to stop studying these issues and start helping us build these important infrastructure projects that are going to help our communities,” he said.
He said he is also working on a bill to give military veterans and their families a chance to apply now for Native allotments because they missed the deadline while they were on active duty.
Sen. Murkowski used her time to speak about a bipartisan bill she’s sponsoring called the Energy Policy Modernization Act. The act would help pave the way for rural and Native communities to produce energy using alternate and renewable sources such as geothermal and solar powered all while saving money.
Murkowski is up for reelection in November with competition from Fairbanks lawyer and Libertarian candidate Joe Miller, Democratic nominee and real estate broker Ray Metcalf, and immigration lawyer and retired Army lieutenant colonel Margaret Stock, running as an Independent.
For his part Congressman Don Young stressed his long tenure—since 1973 and the second longest on record – in the U.S. House of Representatives and that he understands the subsistence life. “I’m the only congressman whose home does not have any running water,” he remarked.
Young also reiterated his long standing “open door policy” to always make time for constituents who stop by either in Alaska or Washington, DC.
Young is also up for reelection and running against Democrat Steve Lindbeck, former journalist, Alaska Public Media executive and university vice chancellor.
In major national election news from the AFN – for the first time in its 50 years of existence – the organization endorsed a candidate for president by giving a nod to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“We are at a critical juncture in our national election and in our country’s history. We are faced with a stark choice as to who will lead our nation and what direction we, as a country, will go,” AFN leaders said in a statement Wednesday. “Hillary Clinton’s priorities are so much in line with our community’s priorities that the board was compelled to break with tradition.”
Tribe Land into Trust
Another topic that carried throughout the convention was the new-to-Alaska Natives option to place land into trust with the federal government. Doing so protects the land from taxation or seizure for debt and allows tribes greater jurisdiction. Trust lands include reservations and it has long been utilized as a common land management practice for Lower 48 tribes.
There appear to be some strong voices for and against it. Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle spoke out against using it for her King Island tribe. “No one should fear tribal jurisdiction over their lands”, and emphasized that “tribes should assert jurisdiction over their lands without trust status.”
She said she did respect the trust as a tool that is now available, but for her it meant a tool for colonization and oppression for 200 years. “The last time my community dealt with the [Bureau of Indian Affairs], they removed our children from our island,” she told the audience during her keynote address.
At present Craig, Alaska is the first tribal community to apply and is moving through the process now. Several tribes discussed using it for such mundane parcels as parking lots or land where offices are maintained.
Reflect, Refresh Renew
So many important topics were covered during the annual three-day convention that is now a halfcentury old. From elders to the rising youth leaders reflecting on all the achievements that had been made since first convening in 1966 that ultimately brought about ANCSA to a long list of initiatives to take forward for the future.