SPEECH: Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention
*As prepared for delivery.
Thank you to Joe for introducing me. And thank you to Julie, the AFN Board, and all of you for the opportunity to speak today.
I’m honored to be with you on the traditional homelands of the Dena’ina people.
I’m also happy to be at the first in-person AFN Convention since 2019. It’s wonderful to see you and to have this precious opportunity to reconnect.
It’s especially precious because the last few years have been hard. They have brought a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and a once-in-a-century storm to many of your doors. And we have had to say goodbye to many friends, mentors, and honored veterans, who remain in our hearts as their wisdom continues to guide us.
Yet, as I join you today, we have much to be thankful for, and I am more optimistic than ever.
More confident that we can bring about positive change.
And proud of the progress we are making together, because there is much good news to share.
The new water treatment facility in Kotzebue, to ensure the entire community has clean drinking water.
How the seawall held in Unalakleet, saving the community from the recent storm.
How employment is rising in Hoonah.
And one of the most productive Congresses in decades for Alaska, as a direct result of our conversations together.
When I visited with you in Unalaska, Manley, Hooper Bay, Golovin, Tatitlek, Tanana, Angoon, Stebbins, and more, I saw the lack of infrastructure, the lack of connectivity, and the high energy costs. I heard your asks for housing, water, sewer, broadband, and protection from climate change and storms. And I partnered with you to write the law that is now bringing unprecedented funding to your communities.
It starts with infrastructure, through a law that we wrote that will allow us to build and improve roads, bridges, docks, airports, ferry service, and more.
This is the largest infrastructure investment in our nation’s history. And because of our partnership and our work together, it is also a historic investment in your communities.
In less than a year, more than $2.4 billion from it has already been announced for Alaska, with much of it going to rural Alaska.
You told me it was time for every Alaska community to have clean running water. While in Stebbins last week, a man named Verne told me, “We’ve been waiting for running water for 40 years.” That’s too long, but his long wait is almost over.
We added historic funding – $3.5 billion – to the infrastructure bill for the Indian Health Service’s sanitation program. We have struggled with high costs shutting Alaska out for too long, so we also secured a set-aside to ensure our projects would be funded.
We also prioritized communications, especially broadband.
When I was preparing to visit Napakiak, I was told the best time to call and email was in the morning, due to service gaps in the afternoon hours.
When I visited Tanana, Victor Joseph brought everyone together at a townhall, where I heard about the high cost of connectivity.
And it’s not just the smaller villages. When I met with Michelle DeWitt and other Bethel leaders, I heard the same.
Knowing these challenges stretch across Alaska, we provided unprecedented funding for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program in our infrastructure bill. Alaska has now received more than $434 million from that, alone—positive investments in communities in the Doyon region, including Tanana; unserved villages on the North Slope, in Southeast, the Yukon, and western Alaska and Kodiak; and most recently, for Bethel and surrounding villages.
We will see more water and broadband funding over the next four years. That will be paired with investments in energy, to help transition from costly diesel to cleaner, cheaper, local options. Critical support for the Marine Highway System, which connects so many communities. Port improvements in places like Nome and Unalaska. Better airports everywhere from Adak and St. Paul to Rampart and Metlakatla. And new roads, including ice roads, to help link remote villages.
Here, I want to commend AFN for its Navigators Program. I want to thank Nicole Borromeo and AFN’s entire team for their tireless efforts, for helping Native communities secure the federal investments they need and deserve. Each region will approach the infrastructure bill in its own way, but that is self-determination at work, and AFN is helping to make the absolute most of these opportunities.
Beyond infrastructure, we are making progress on public safety.
When I visited Unalakleet, a young boy asked me how I could help protect him. A simple and beautiful question. And I talked about threats from storms, housing, health, and education.
When he asked that question, I also thought about Tami Jerue, Michelle Demmert, Vivian Korthuis, and all of the advocates leading the way to address public safety and how we better protect the most vulnerable.
I have taken the solutions put forward by AFN, victim service providers, and Native justice professionals to heart—and included many of them in Congress’ recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which I helped lead.
One of my highest priorities was a pilot program that will empower Alaska tribes to combat domestic violence-related crimes that occur in their villages. It supports tribal self-determination in public safety. It was part of the tribal title I wrote with Chairman Schatz at the Indian Affairs Committee, but the idea came from you.
Another way that we are united in working together is through Congressionally Directed Spending.
When I met with Bertha Koweluk at the Bering Sea Women’s Group, the domestic violence shelter in Nome, she reminded me of the importance of supporting holistic systems for healing. She serves 15 communities and worries about running out of space. I requested $2 million to help Bertha rehabilitate her facility, and that’s just one of hundreds of projects we’re funding through this process.
Building on Ted and Don’s legacy, I have secured hundreds of millions of dollars for your priorities, like a tsunami shelter for Old Harbor, a new campus for I?isa?vik in Utqia?vik, and the expansion of the emergency room at ANMC.
Visiting your communities is how I learn about what is important to you. This spring, I visited Kiminaq [Kimmy-knock] Maddy Alvanna-Stimpfle in her first grade Inupiaq immersion class in Nome, where the teachers gifted me with an Inupiaq name, “Ayaga,” which means “aunt on my mother’s side.”
I’m honored by that and inspired by Kiminaq, who is learning the language while teaching it, a situation many find themselves in. I’m proud to support her work, and Alaska Native languages, through funding, state and tribal education compacting, and legislation like the Native American Languages Act.
I was also inspired by what I saw in Angoon—how the science class is growing fresh produce and vegetables that they will eventually sell to the community to raise funds for their school; the amazing Tlingit dancing by the students; and their great questions, including from Albert Kookesh’s grandson, Kyle.
Now, for all the progress we have made, I also recognize there is much left ahead.
Most immediate is helping western Alaska recover from its terrible storm.
When I traveled to the region a few weeks ago, I saw houses lifted off their foundations in Golovin. Boats scattered all over the tundra in Chevak. Eroded coastline and destroyed roads in Elim. How Stebbins is now completely exposed to the next storm.
In the face of that devastation, I was inspired by the first responders from the Alaska Defense Force. Many came out of retirement to help. And I was moved by how Kawerak, Norton Sound Health Corporation, the Coastal Villages Region Fund, the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Bering Straits Native Corporation, and others came together to ensure communities have what they need.
That is the Alaskan spirit, the Alaskan way, to come together in times of crisis.
We pushed hard for a disaster declaration, with 100 percent of the costs to be paid by the federal government for the first 30 days, so we can move quickly before winter and save dollars needed for recovery. We succeeded. And going forward, we will continue to do everything we can to help communities recover and rebuild.
When I say we, I mean all of us in our newly formed congressional delegation. I miss Don Young, our Congressman for All Alaska, every day. It’s impossible to replace him, but I’m so pleased to welcome our new Representative, my friend Mary Peltola, to the team.
Mary has made history. We are all so proud of her. And all I can say is, it’s about time an Alaska Native person is serving in the United States Congress.
Mary has her priorities in the right place—starting with fish. The storm destroyed subsistence camps, nets, and fish racks, an incredible hardship as winter arrives. And that is only worsened by the salmon disaster unfolding across our state, which threatens your food security and way of life.
Ragnar Alstrom and Serena Fitka told me that summer doesn’t arrive until the salmon do. The preparation, harvest, and putting-up of subsistence salmon is why people are where they are. Subsistence foods are why your ancestors chose the places many of you live today. They bring families together, give rhythm to the days, and tie harvesters to the ocean and the river. These fish nourish bodies and souls, but the Yukon and Kuskokwim have not seen a real summer in two years.
I’m deeply concerned about Alaska’s salmon and crab, and I’m working to make every tool available as we pursue solutions.
As part of that, I will help expand electronic monitoring to reach full coverage in high-bycatch fisheries.
I recognize that you waste nothing, no part of an animal or fish, and agree we must find ways to reduce the waste of precious resources.
I will also continue to fund the research and management, including expanded co-management opportunities with you, that are needed to find the way forward.
This year, I worked with the Tanana Chiefs Conference to fund a mid-river sonar. I also worked with the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and the Kuskokwim Inter-tribal Fish Commission to provide for indigenous-led monitoring in subsistence communities. As some of the most affected by these crises, subsistence users and their traditional ecological knowledge must inform our actions and decisions.
I’m worried about the toll that fisheries disasters will have on Alaskans, as livelihoods and ways of life hang in the balance. I also recognize that we already have a mental health epidemic in Alaska, with suicide far too prevalent in many communities. We have made progress on crucial services and access to care, but have to do more to address the underlying intergenerational trauma driving many health disparities.
As a part of that, it is important to help families and communities heal from the shameful policies that separated children from parents during the Indian boarding school era. Liz La quen náay [LAH-goo-nye] Medicine Crow, Emily Edenshaw from the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and others have put forward ideas to promote healing. And I’m proud to be the lead sponsor of the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools Act, which would advance many of those ideas into law.
As we look forward to a new Congress, I plan to expand a new program I have created to help address contaminated lands.
To push the Department of the Interior to process allotments for Vietnam-era veterans and open new lands closer to their homes.
To keep building consensus so we finally secure land for the Landless, and keep up the fight for a life-saving road for the people of King Cove.
I will also continue to make our changing Arctic a priority, with you at the table and guiding decisions every step of the way. My recent Arctic Commitment Act focuses on security, shipping, mapping, ports, research, and trade—all of the items that Julie, Melanie Banhke, and so many of you have spotlighted as opportunities, challenges, and needs.
The final challenge I want to speak to is one of our most fundamental—the need for housing, which affects every part of our lives. Housing is a problem just about everywhere, whether you’re in the largest Native community in Anchorage or in rural Alaska, where costs are high and overcrowding is all too common.
We’ve taken some good steps, like a $100 million increase for the Indian Housing Block Grant program, and greater resources for Native veterans threatened by homelessness. But we can’t do enough, fast enough, to solve this crisis. I have mentioned a lot of priorities today, but housing is at the top of my list for next year, and we all need to pull together on it.
As I mentioned at the start of my remarks, I’m so optimistic right now. I recognize the challenges we face, but firmly believe we will overcome them. We know how to do that. By working together. And that’s why your theme – celebrating our unity – is so important.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Shungnak. And I’ve never forgotten the theme that their school, and really the entire community, have adopted.
“It’s a We.”
Not an I, not a Me.
“It’s a We.”
You’ll see that on banners and t-shirts. And you’ll see people living it. Knowing the value of partnership. Knowing that no individual can do as much as all of us, working together.
That same spirit extends beyond Shungnak, to this broader community. And that’s why I am so optimistic about the future. Because we are partners, who work together to make things happen.
It’s not lost on me that at the root of so many issues being discussed this week is a failure to listen to Native peoples—by those who like to propose solutions for you, rather than advocating for solutions from you.
For as long as I have the privilege of representing you, I will always choose that latter path. We will continue to have our conversations in your communities, in airports, in hallways, and in atriums like the one outside this room. We will continue our work together to accomplish what we can, and what we must, so that all Native people can thrive.
I am blessed to be invited to your communities. I listen to you and hear you. And when I go back to Washington, DC, I work for you.
It is an honor to represent you. And thank you for being such great partners on behalf of your families, communities, tribes, and regions.
Gunalchéesh. I will see you tonight at Quyana for hugs, pictures, dancing, and continued celebration of our unity.