AFN ConferencePresident Kitka, Chiefs, Respected Elders and Delegates.
In 2003, I had the opportunity to address this convention for the first time as
a United States Senator. I pledged to that convention that I would be a Senator who
listened to the people. To me that means more than an annual appearance at the
AFN Convention. It means visiting with our Native people in the places that they
When we come together in Anchorage we focus on the issues of statewide
import. Many of those issues are reflected in the proposed resolutions. But when I
travel to the villages I hear about issues that are no less important.
• The length of time it has taken to build sanitation facilities in Buckland.
• Why Petersburg, which has an entitlement to BIA road money, can’t get the
money out of the BIA for important local projects.
• Why the federal government is not doing more to cleanup the environmental
contamination it left behind during the cold war period.
• Why so many of you are still waiting to get title your Native allotments.
This year my village travel has taken me primarily to the Aleut Region and
to the Bering Straits and NANA Regions. I proudly attended the opening of the
Sitka Tribe’s Family Justice Center in August. And I joined with many of you
to participate in the AFN Leadership Conference, focusing on economic
development, in July. I hope to visit 2-3 regions each year – so if I didn’t visit
your community this year, I hope to see you soon.
After a long hard year in Washington it gives me great joy to return home
and spend time with real people. And while nothing beats coming to the AFN
Convention in person, I want to extend a warm welcome to our friends who are
viewing or listening to the AFN Convention in the villages and worldwide on the
I remember a time in Alaska when we didn’t have satellites and cable
television. Television programs were mailed to the Alaska from the Lower 48. So
many of the programs my generation watched as children had already aired in the
Lower 48 the week before. Seems like ancient history now.
Technology makes our world so much more connected and that has
important implications for the future of rural Alaska. Thanks to Julie Kitka’s
leadership, the AFN has come to embrace technology and the opportunities it
creates for our Native people. This is a very good thing in my view.
At one time we believed that our Native people had to make a choice. A
choice between a living a mostly subsistence lifestyle in the village, perhaps
supplemented by firefighting during the summer. The other choice was to move to
Anchorage or one of the hubs for wage employment. It is no wonder that we now
refer to Anchorage as the largest Native village in Alaska.
Technology has opened up a range of new economic options for our villages
in addition to subsistence. Over time these options will provide opportunities
beyond subsistence. But they should never and will never replace subsistence.
The reason is that subsistence is not only a source of nutrition. It is also a
source of cultural nourishment for the Elders and the youth alike. It is the glue that
defines you as a people.
Yet I also foresee a day when our young Native people will be out hunting
early in the morning and writing computer software later in the day. I see a day
when people in our villages will be collaborating with colleagues in various places in
the world via high speed Internet connections. Collaborating with their colleagues
in other parts of the world as equals.
A lot of politicians in Washington complain about how work like this is being
outsourced from the Lower 48 to India. I would like to see more work outsourced to
Indians – not India. And I want to see more of that work outsourced to Eskimos
and Aleuts and Alutiqs.
Expanding these knowledge based opportunities requires infrastructure. We
need an educational system in Alaska which prepares our village kids not just to
compete with Anchorage and Seattle, but to compete with Germany, Sweden and
yes – India.
A strong educational infrastructure in Alaska is one that gives our children
options. It should have a strong cultural component which gives our children a
reason to believe in themselves. It should work to enrich our children’s
understanding of Native languages so that they understand their place in this world.
But that educational system also needs to provide the English and math and science
skills that are demanded by the global economy. Creating these jobs requires physical infrastructure as well. It means bringing reliable and affordable electricity, heat and fast Internet connections into
If we cannot afford the electricity to keep the lights on at home and if we
cannot afford the fuel to heat our homes, then we will not be able to hold our young
people in the villages. To be dependent on an individual such as Hugo Chavez to
keep us warm in the winter is not a position that Alaskans or the Nation should be
We must take charge of our energy future at the regional and village level.
That means developing locally available natural resources – oil and gas, wind
energy and geothermal where appropriate.
We also must not forget that some of our villages are facing immediate
threats to their survival. They are addressing the urgent consequences of coastal
and river erosion. Some people in the Lower 48 know about Shishmaref because
they read the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. What they don’t know is
that Shishmaref is merely the tip of the melting iceberg – so to speak.
And we must also be mindful of the need to improve our human
infrastructure. We must control the abuse of alcohol, drugs and violence in our
communities. We must keep evils like methamphetamines out before they take hold
in our communities. And we must muster the courage to stand up against domestic
violence and Elder abuse.
I know that many of you feel the same way. I know that many of you feel
that it is time for our Native people to take control of our destiny. And I know that
many of you also appreciate the gravity of the struggle.
Senator Stevens, Congressman Young and I work tirelessly to deliver federal
funding to improve the third world conditions that face your so many of your
We will never give up this fight. Just before Congress recessed for the
elections, the Senate passed my bill to extend the life of the Village Safe Water
program through 2010. In passing this legislation the Senate has acknowledged that
sanitation in rural Alaska is a problem deserving of national attention. That’s not
an easy feat in an environment where earmarks are attacked every day.
But make no mistake about it. The federal funding we deliver is one piece of
the equation that will sustain your villages in the 21st Century.
The other piece has to come from you. Your vision, your drive and your
energy to make your villages safe, healthy, productive and most importantly –
uniquely Native places. Ted, Don and I do all we can to help your villages survive.
Only you can make them thrive.
You have told me that we can’t make this happen without the youth. I believe
you. That is why I introduced legislation at the AFN’s request to make it easier for
Native Corporations to issue stock to our Native people born after 1971. Don Young
moved the bill through the House of Representatives. President Bush has signed
this bill into law. Now it’s up to you – the shareholders of each of our Native
corporations – to decide whether to give the youth a seat in the board room.
In closing I want to share with you that I often reflect on the words of the
Yupik Elder, Harold Napoleon in thinking about how I can best help move our
Native people ahead through my work in Washington, DC.
Harold’s essay, the Way of the Human Being, explored how our Native
people began to rebuild their lives following the epidemics only to meet the
challenges of adopting out, boarding schools, the loss of language and the threat to
Harold observes that these traumas continue to afflict us today. They are
responsible for the alcohol abuse, drug abuse, depression and suicides which plague
our communities today. Work, hard work, he concludes, is the way we strengthen
Perhaps that is the reason that the phrase “We are working very hard”
appears in so many of the newsletters I receive from Native organizations. That
phrase often appears in a Native language and is then translated into English.
And you are working hard. This Native community has so much it can take
pride in. The hard and often unacknowledged work in the tribal office. The work
of our Native corporations to generate dividends and shareholder employment
opportunities. The work of our 8(a) companies which are among the top federal
government contractors in the Nation. The work of our VPSOs, our health aides and our Dental Health Aide Therapists. The work of people in the regional nonprofits and housing authorities
and our world class Native health system.
Perhaps the hardest working people of all – the men and women of the
Alaska National Guard who spent their summer training in the Mississippi heat. In
October I had to visit these fine soldiers as they completed their training in Camp
Shelby. They are working very hard to defend our freedoms. Our villages will
work very hard to take care of their families while they are away. We wish them
well during their tour of duty in the Middle East.
And last but not least, the work of Julie Kitka and her fine staff at AFN.
Pushing the envelope every day to generate new ideas to move our Native people
forward. As we approach the holidays, we reflect on what we can be grateful for.
And when I look at what you are accomplishing today and the foundation you are
laying for the future, there is much to reflect upon.
I appreciate all that you do for our Native people and I am proud to stand
with you – as your partner – in achieving outstanding results in the year’s ahead.
The AFN is so many ways Alaska’s best family reunion – a reunion not just
for the Native community - but for all Alaskans whose lives have been enriched
through their association with the Native community.
Nothing warms my heart more than the time we spent together this time each
year. Thank you, once again, for spending a portion of your morning with me.