SEN. MURKOWSKI ADDRESSES THE ALASKA FEDERATION OF NATIVES CONVENTION
ANCHORAGE, AK – Following are the prepared remarks of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. Sen. Murkowski spoke to the Convention this morning in Anchorage.
I am honored to join you once again for Alaska’s great family reunion, the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. I am honored to join you in the presence of our veterans. They span the generations -- from the Alaska Territorial Guard, who served before we became a State, to members of the Alaska National Guard who recently served in Iraq and Kuwait. And veterans of every conflict in between. Thank you for your service. You are Alaska’s heroes.
And I join all of you in expressing appreciation to the Dena’ina people, in whose homeland we gather today.
In 1996, Nancy Lord, a writer who lives in Homer, published an article about the urgent need to protect our Native languages. The article argued that we should preserve Native languages because they empower Native communities. She focused on the Dena’ina language to illustrate the point.
Nancy observed that the traditional greeting in the Dena’ina language does not translate into the English words “hello” or “how are you?”
The Dena’ina greeting translates into the English words “Is it good?” The hoped for response is “Yes, it is good.”
In that response, Nancy suggests that something larger is at stake than the feelings of the two speakers.
When we say it is good, we mean our community, the larger world, and each of us. All are prospering together.
Powerful writing. It is no wonder that Nancy was recently designated as Alaska’s writer laureate.
“It is good.” A powerful thought to reflect upon this first day of the AFN Convention. And so fitting. No matter how difficult the challenges we bring here we come together as one people within these walls. And on Saturday, we leave with a sense of hope and inspiration.
It is good that AFN is the first convention to occupy this beautiful new Dena’ina Center. A facility that honors the first inhabitants of this region and their traditional language. A showplace for traditional and contemporary Native art.
Looking at the Anchorage skyline, one might think that the first people of this region were named BP and Conoco Phillips. There is little in downtown Anchorage to educate our visitors that the first people of this region lived in places named Eklutna, Knik, Tyonek and Kenaitze. Our visitors from around the globe wouldn’t know the first language of this region was Dena’ina, not English. Until now. This facility helps to change all of that. This too is good.
That said, the beauty and the message of this building, sited in the heart of “Alaska’s largest Native village,” cannot distract us from a very disheartening truth.
Like our Native languages, our traditional Native villages are today fighting a battle for survival. That is not good.
For the past several years we believed the most immediate threat to our Native villages was climate change. We focused the Nation’s attention on Shishmaref, Kivalina and Newtok -- communities that were fast losing their lands to coastal and river erosion.
This year, we are coming to grips with the reality that high energy costs are driving people away from rural Alaska faster than the receding shoreline.
In late August I brought the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to Bethel for a firsthand look at how high energy costs were affecting rural Alaska.
I began by visiting all of the stores in town. Walking up and down the aisles checking the high cost of milk and bread. Comparing the prices to what I pay to feed my family. Talking with shoppers one on one about their fears for the winter.
The following day, the committee took formal testimony before a standing room crowd. The focus of that hearing was both statewide and local.
Ralph Andersen from BBNA presented the statewide situation on AFN’s behalf. Janie Leask spoke of First Alaskans cutting edge policy work on the relationship of energy costs to village survival. Myron Naneng, Matthew Nicolai, Gene Peltola, Ron Hoffman and Mike Williams spoke to the dire situation in the YK Region.
There is no dispute about the cause or the extent of the problem. Rural Alaska is too dependent on diesel and heating oil. People living in remote, rural communities are paying over 40 % of their annual incomes on home energy use. Those living in Anchorage spend about 4% of their annual income on energy.
Last week we discovered a new wrinkle to the problem. The fuel barge didn’t arrive early enough for some communities in the YK Delta. Water levels are low and ice is forming in the Kuskokwim. These communities are trying to figure out how to pay to fly their fuel in, on top of high energy prices.
However we define the problem there is no doubt that energy costs affect every aspect of rural life. They affect rural life in ways that might not be obvious to policymakers in Washington, DC.
The cost of gathering subsistence foods. The cost of medevacs to the regional hospitals and ANMC. The cost of heating our rural regional hospitals. All of these costs rose dramatically over the summer. They rose to historic levels.
In his testimony Ralph offered a number of ideas to address this urgent crisis. Some of these recommendations were directed to the Congress; others were directed to the State of Alaska.
The number one recommendation for Congress was to increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. You know this program as LIHEAP.
Ralph, we heard you and we acted. In October, Congress doubled funding for the LIHEAP program nationally. That means Alaska will have about $34 million to distribute to people who are having troubling paying their heating bill. We also revised the eligibility requirements to increase the number of working Alaskans eligible to receive the assistance. Dimitri Philemonof asked me to focus on this issue when he traveled to Washington on August 22nd.
We also provided additional funding for weatherization programs nationwide.
Before leaving Washington in early October Congress passed a key piece of Indian legislation that is important to village survival. Congress reauthorized NAHASDA, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act. This is the law which provides the Indian Housing Block Grant. President Bush has signed it.
The new law creates opportunities for your tribes and regional housing authorities to construct new housing and renovate existing housing stocks. All with energy efficiency in mind.
Many of you wrote to express concern that Congress would end the BIA Housing Improvement Program which helps tribes improve some of the worst housing stock. The worst housing tends to be the least energy efficient. You will be pleased to know that Congress kept this important program in place.
I admit that these are all short term solutions. Everybody agrees that the long term solution is to reduce rural Alaska’s dependence on diesel by generating energy in our villages. We need to pursue this strategy with the greatest vigor.
There is no one size fits all solution to Alaska’s energy challenges. We need to be working on wind and biomass, energy from our oceans and rivers, geothermal, and solar. We need to recover gas from our landfills.
Responding to the nationwide energy crisis Congress has created new tax incentives for alternative energy and extended the life of some of the existing tax incentives. You can read about these tax law changes in my AFN Newsletter which is being distributed at my booth downstairs.
In addition, USDA Rural Development now has the authority to make grants and loans for small hydro projects.
We must do more to support our Native Corporations that are trying to develop energy from ANCSA lands. The promise of ANCSA was that our Native people would develop their own resources from their own lands. After 36 years it is a promise largely unfulfilled.
In 2005, I played a key role in writing the Indian Energy provisions of the Energy Policy Act. Congress authorized an aggressive grant and loan program to jump start energy development on American Indian and Alaska Native lands.
The current administration has been slow in implementing it, which is very frustrating. I will press the next administration to do better.
Now, the migration of Native people out of the villages is not a new thing. While the historic increase in energy costs this summer has made the situation ever more urgent, other factors are also responsible for the move from rural to urban Alaska. Healthcare and public safety to name two.
For the first time in more than a decade, the Senate considered, and then passed by a vote of 83-10, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization. This is a bill that every leader in our Alaska Native health community had a role in creating. It earned wide support from Indian Country.
It promises new resources to fight domestic violence, suicide and FAS. It gave our Native health providers the authority to offer long term care for the Elders in rural Alaska. It provided new funding opportunities for the Native health system through Medicare and Medicaid.
It authorized scholarships and loan repayment programs to recruit health care professionals to come to the villages. I just learned that Emmonak is critically in need of a Physician’s Assistant or a Nurse Practitioner. 767 village residents, a great clinic facility and only 5 health aides to carry the full load. We need to recruit more health professionals to rural Alaska. We need to train our youth to be those health professionals.
The Indian Health Care Improvement Act, S.1200, was everything we wanted and everything we’ve been fighting for. Let me repeat, it passed the Senate by a margin of 83-10, a great bipartisan effort. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news. The House of Representatives has had this bill since February 28th. Their leadership has refused to put it to a vote.
I cannot explain to you why Speaker Pelosi has stalled the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. It befuddles me. It’s time to be asking questions. You have the right to know why the House hasn’t devoted any floor time to improving your healthcare.
I can promise you the fight to reauthorize the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act isn’t over yet. You have waited more than ten years to send this bill to the White House. If we can’t get it done before we leave for the year I will insist that we take it up first thing next year. And I expect that I will have the support of my colleagues in both parties on this.
Public safety is another challenge in rural Alaska that cannot be forgotten. This year, a key focus of the Indian Affairs Committee has been the public safety crisis in Indian Country.
The Indian Affairs Committee has had many hearings on the issue which led to the introduction of a Tribal Law and Order Act. I am the lead co-sponsor of that bill, which is sponsored by Senator Dorgan.
The bill is focused on improving public safety in reservation communities of the Lower 48. Yet it also strengthens a number of public safety grant programs that benefit Alaska, like the Tribal Youth Program. I have pledged to work with AFN to include Alaska specific provisions in the bill as it moves through the process.
As we search for new and more effective ways to keep the peace in our rural communities, we must do all that we can to support our VPSOs and fill vacant VPSO positions.
This summer Congress passed an emergency program to address critical needs in Indian Country. We identified the continuation of the VPSO program as a critical need and authorized the federal government to spend money to support the program.
Now we know there are some people in the State who wonder why we should continue to spend a lot of energy and money in rural Alaska.
If rural Alaska isn’t sustainable, they suggest, we should accept urban migration as the natural course of events. I respectfully disagree. Lose rural Alaska -- lose the very essence of what Alaska is all about.
Some will choose to leave rural Alaska for a job, for school, for whatever personal reasons. But no one should be forced to make the choice.
As I said at the first AFN economic development summit, our Native people shouldn’t have to choose between a job in the city and cultural life that is found only in the village.
I have supported AFN’s economic development efforts and I have co-sponsored AFN’s Native American Challenge legislation because I believe we have to find ways to make living in rural Alaska sustainable.
In formulating this position I relied heavily on the influence of our Elders. The Inupiaq people of the North Slope are mourning the loss of legendary whaling captain Arnold Brower, Sr. who fell through the ice while traveling to his traditional camp at the age of 86.
For those who don’t know the story; as a young man Arnold’s father gave him the choice of moving to San Francisco for a formal education or becoming a reindeer herder. Arnold chose tradition. He was rewarded for his wise choice.
PhD scientists flocked to Barrow to learn from Arnold how the Arctic really worked. Arnold, in turn, relied on traditional knowledge to educate them.
If the Inupiaq people were forced to move to the city what would become of the whaling culture of the North Slope? We owe it to the memory of Arnold Brower, Sr. to ensure that we never see that day.
We owe it to the memory of Chiefs Peter John and David Salmon to ensure that the subsistence cultures of moose, caribou and salmon continue to thrive along the great rivers of Interior Alaska.
They and other traditional chiefs across the State did not fight to protect subsistence rights only to see their people abandon traditional food for Safeway and Fred Meyers.
Several weeks ago I placed a statement in the Congressional Record honoring Dr. Walter Soboleff on his 100th birthday.
Walter’s eyes have experienced so much of Alaska’s history. The end of segregation in Southeast Alaska. The suit against the United States Government for taking Native lands to create the Tongass National Forest and the Glacier Bay National Monument. The revival of the Tlingit language.
Today Walter’s people continue the fight to recover the land that the federal government took from them. They fight to recover that land in Southeast Alaska. I stand with them through the Sealaska lands bill and the Southeast landless bill.
Force the Tlingit and Haida peoples to leave Southeast for the big city? No way!
Now, we must come to grips with the reality of migration from rural to urban Alaska. It is a reality. The demands on great organizations like Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Southcentral Foundation, the Fairbanks Native Association and the Alaska Native Medical Center are growing. Their funding levels are not. This we must address.
However, as we strengthen our urban institutions to meet the heightened demands on their resources we cannot give up on rural Alaska. We will not give up on rural Alaska.
We cannot give up on the Denali Commission. We cannot give up on eliminating the honeybucket. We cannot give up on rural education. We must continue to support efforts like the Alaska Marketplace to create new jobs in rural Alaska.
We must continue to search across the globe for new strategies to sustain rural Alaska. And we need to find ways for our highly educated Native youth to return home and take leadership roles in their traditional communities.
We’ve overcome the cold. We’ve overcome epidemics and adopting out. We’ve overcome the loss of language. We’ve overcome the taking of Native lands by the federal government.
We will overcome the new challenges that threaten the survival of rural Alaska. We will overcome these challenges together.