Remarks to the 2009 Alaska Federation of Native Convention

*** As Prepared for Delivery ***

I am honored to join with you this afternoon at Alaska's greatest family reunions. During AFN Week, the Dena'ina Center is Alaska's largest Native village. Thank you for inviting me into your extended family once again.

In so many ways, the AFN Convention represents the best of Alaska, Alaska's values and Alaskan traditions.

  • The Elders and Youth Conference. We all understand that it's tough living in two worlds - the traditional and the modern. The annual Elders and Youth Conference bridges the gap and the discussions ensure that future generations know where they come from.
  • The Arts and Crafts Show. Alaska is known around the world for the skill of its artists. The best of Alaska's artistic traditions are to be found just downstairs. Let's support our Native artists.
  • Your annual resolutions process. The issues that are discussed on Saturday morning are often very difficult, sometimes divisive. Yet the debate is always respectful. Your consensus building process is sound. Your decisions respected.

Like you, I enjoy the business part of AFN. But the best part is the time we spend visiting together in the corridors and downstairs at the Arts and Crafts Show. I will be around the Convention today and tomorrow. I hope that we'll have a chance to chat, snap a picture, and share a laugh.

We know you can't even begin to understand rural Alaska unless you travel to rural Alaska. This August, I went to Saint Paul and Newtok for the first time. I was pleased that several members of President Obama's cabinet traveled to Y-K this summer. I am looking forward to hearing more about the new initiatives that will come from this trip.

Pilgrimages from Washington to Alaska are nothing new. Every day your Alaska Congressional Delegation implores our colleagues and Cabinet Secretaries to come and see for themselves what we are talking about.

In 1969, my late colleague and friend, Senator Ted Kennedy, visited Western Alaska on a fact finding mission about Indian education. He learned more than he came for -- finding the level of poverty in rural Alaska mind-numbing.

It is true that living conditions have gotten better in rural Alaska since Senator Kennedy visited. Yet the number of Native people who continue to live in third world conditions remains unconscionable.

In rural Alaska we still experience rates of poverty, unemployment, disease and suicide that should not exist in 21st Century America.

Alaska Native Villages desperately need the infrastructure that the rest of America enjoys - including broadband Internet to create new economic opportunities.

As if these challenges were not enough our Native people must deal with the challenge of a warming Arctic that threatens to push whole communities into the sea.

Difficult conditions in rural Alaska have brought many Native people into Anchorage. Some face difficult life challenges here. Like the challenge of urban homelessness. The senseless attack on Native men by two young people who had the audacity to put their acts of violence on YouTube is fresh in my mind. Just as the paintball attacks of 2001. As an Alaskan community we must say never again and redouble our efforts to protect the most vulnerable among us.

When President Obama's team came to rural Alaska they were greeted with a series of issue papers bearing the title, "Forgotten America" in large print. In somewhat smaller print is a Yupik phrase which translates into, "Having a hard time in the moment." That phrase reminds us that there is so much more to be done.

On November 5th, President Obama will meet with tribal leaders from across America at the White House. I am hoping for a strong representation from Alaska at this meeting.

And as the first action item, wouldn't it be great if we asked President Obama to travel to rural Alaska? To retrace the steps Senator Kennedy took some forty years ago? President Obama needs to see what's changed. But more important, he has to see what needs to change.

President Obama ran on a platform of hope and change. I am looking to our new administration to make the creation of sustainable economies in our Native communities a front burner issue.

Although I have disagreements with the President, it is important to give credit where credit is due. Every year, since I came to the Senate in 2003, I've been fighting for a meaningful increase in the Indian Health Service budget. This year we are going to have a decent Indian Health Service budget.

However, on a more troubling note, we find ourselves defending against attacks on longstanding programs which are making things better for our Native people. I would like to spend my time on new initiatives to make things even better. Unfortunately a lot of my time is devoted to retaining what we have.

The new administration's first budget proposed significant cuts to Village Safe Water and the Denali Commission. Through my work on the Senate Appropriations Committee these cuts have been reversed.

It seem incredible that we would have to fight to keep funds flowing to village sanitation when there is so much work left to be done. But fight we did and we won. Up to one hundred million dollars could be available for sanitation projects next summer.

In the course of that battle we also learned that some of the money that we set aside for sanitation in past years hadn't been spent. This may explain why projects in some of your villages just don't seem to get done. We've identified at least sixty five million dollars in unspent money from past years.

Some in Congress wanted to divert the unspent money for their priorities. We educated our colleagues and they relented. We told the agencies to remove the bottlenecks and get the money out the door. They must get this done within 90 days.

With all of the focus on climate change you will be surprised to learn that we are also fighting to defend erosion assistance to Shishmaref and Kivalina from funding cuts.

Some in Congress wondered why the Army Corps of Engineers wasn't charging Alaska Native villages a cost share on emergency erosion grants. They asked, "Why are Alaska Native villages exempt when other communities in America aren't?"

The answer is obvious. We are talking about subsistence communities. Inhabited by Native people to whom the federal government owes a trust responsibility; communities that are at "ground zero" from the effects of climate change; communities that lack the resources to pay.

We've managed to turn this misguided policy around. If Native villages can't afford to pay a cost share for emergency measures to address coastal erosion, they won't have to.

This summer, as all of you know, one of my colleagues in the Senate took aim at the unique opportunities that American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians have in government contracting.

Senator McCaskill said that her hearing was only about Alaska Native Corporations. But everyone knew that was the hearing was intended to kill the 8(a) program for all of America's Native peoples. Indian Country didn't fall for it. Alaska, the Lower 48 and Hawaii were all united in opposition to the Senator's plans.

At that hearing, Senator McCaskill learned that the 8(a) program is one of a few Indian economic development opportunities that has proven successful anywhere - so successful some of the Lower 48 gaming tribes are beginning to look at government contracting as their next significant opportunity.

Your interests were well represented at the hearing by Julie, Jackie and Sarah Lukin. Their testimony was powerful ...very powerful. Yet in spite of our best efforts, the program remains at risk.

I found it deeply disappointing when at the end of the hearing, Senator McCaskill curtly suggested Native people will have to find another way to obtain redress from the federal government.

I don't accept this. You don't accept this. This fight to protect your 8(a) business opportunities goes on. I have asked the Indian Affairs Committee to schedule its own hearing on the Native 8(a) program. This hearing will occur in the near future.
These 8(a) opportunities are important to you. This needs to be a front burner issue when you meet with President Obama.

Unfortunately, 8(a) is not the worst example of what we've had to contend with since January. The cruelest was what the Defense Department tried to do to the Alaska Territorial Guard -- reduce their retirement checks in the dead of winter.

Sadly, three of the 26 affected Guardsmen have passed on since I first brought this issue to the attention of the Senate. Among those three is Carl Smith of Hooper Bay, who passed away at the end of July. I have a picture of Carl proudly holding his US Army discharge certificate. That picture sat on an easel next to me when I spoke on the Senate floor about restoring his benefits. How sad it is we couldn't restore Carl's pension sooner.

I think you all know that the administration opposed our efforts to justly compensate our Elders for defending Alaska during World War II. We overcame the opposition. A fix for the Territorial Guard is included in the final version of the 2010 Defense Bill which was passed yesterday. The President has promised to sign this legislation when it reaches his desk.

I'm proud that our Nation came together to demand justice for the Territorial Guard. Now it is time that they do the same for all of our other rural veterans.

For far too long, our rural veteran has been our forgotten veteran. I've been fighting to make VA services available to our veterans where they live. This year the VA embarked upon a new rural pilot project to deliver care through community health centers and Indian health clinics. I'm told that rural veterans have been slow to sign up for it. There's still time.

This is a start. But I won't rest until our rural veterans can get the healthcare that they earned -- at home, in their region, and at the VA's expense.

Do you see the picture? None of our progress comes easy. As we take a step forward, somebody tries to push us two steps back. But when it comes to your concerns, falling back is simply not an option. That's the way I defend Alaska in the United States Senate.

If you think times are tough now, just think back to the days of Elizabeth Peratrovich. We know Elizabeth Peratrovich as a civil rights leader whose legacy stands shoulder to shoulder with that of Dr. Martin Luther King. Thanks to the magnificent documentary produced by Jeff Silverman and starring Diane Benson the entire world will know about Elizabeth too.

When Elizabeth Peratrovich came to the Alaska Legislature to demand an end to discrimination against Natives, she knew that justice for Native people was not a gift from heaven. You have to fight for it every day.

This remains a central challenge for Native people in 21st century American society. Do not ever take for granted that your Native way of life is a gift from heaven. You must fight for it every day. And you do!

If you wonder why we fight for subsistence think about the 9 year old boy from Barrow who harpooned a 32 foot bowhead whale. Paul Patkotak -- he's a master at the video game "Guitar Hero" but still finds time to pursue the traditional ways. Now that's a hero!

I'm in awe of the skill and leadership of this nine year old. And let's remember that his achievement helped put tons of muktuk and meat in the freezers and ice cellars of his community.

This story teaches us that subsistence is not just about the food. It is about who we are. It is an essential aspect of our uniquely Alaskan culture, transcending generations.

When you gave up your aboriginal hunting and fishing rights as part of ANCSA, you were promised that the State would step in and protect rural subsistence. History reminds us that it didn't happen.

So in ANILCA the federal government stepped in to protect your subsistence. But 29 years have passed since ANILCA became law. No one would say the administration of subsistence by any level of government is working well.

This morning, you heard the announcement that the Interior Department intends to conduct a review of federal subsistence management in Alaska. I think that's appropriate.

Though the rural subsistence preference was established by Congress, the federal subsistence management program was not. It was created by the federal land management agencies. If that program is not working, it is important for Congress to understand why.

Back when I was an Alaska Legislator from an Anchorage District, I stood up for you and supported rural subsistence. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has oversight jurisdiction over ANILCA. As the Ranking Member of that committee I want to know why rural Alaskans face increasing difficulty putting meat and fish on the table.

This issue is no longer of interest just to Alaskans. The American people are watching how we address our subsistence dilemma. Let me offer an example. Last winter, with fuel in short supply, Nick Tucker took to the Internet to tell the world that the people of Emmonak were being forced to choose between eating and heating. That was a shot heard around the world.

Not only did it bring donations by the ton to the village. It gave me the ammunition to publicly call out the Bureau of Indian Affairs for why they were doing nothing to help alleviate the conditions. And the Bureau did respond by sending emergency general assistance to the village.

Just a few weeks ago the New York Times reported on the situation in Marshall. This public recognition goes a long way in persuading the federal government to declare a fishing disaster.

Yet we know that the proud people of Emmonak and Marshall would prefer to fish than accept emergency assistance from the federal government. We know that subsistence isn't about welfare - it is the Alaskan word for work. Hard, hard work!

I am determined to get to the bottom of why the subsistence management system isn't working. And I'm determined that this conversation proceed in a more constructive way than it did in the 1990s.

I need not remind you that Alaska spent a good 10 years debating whether we wanted state management or federal management. We couldn't come to an agreement and it nearly tore this state apart. Now nearly 10 years later we've concluded that neither system is doing the job of putting food on our tables. I welcome your ideas on how to do it better.

It also seems fundamental to me that Native people should feel safe and be safe in Alaska. I'm appalled by the statistic that a Native woman is more than two and one half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other woman.

Last year I told you that I would make the proposed Tribal Law and Order Act more relevant to Alaska. Three of my amendments will be included in the bill when it comes to the floor.

These amendments open up a funding stream to hire new VPSOs. They authorize money to train VPSOs and Tribal Police. And they set aside fifty million dollars for a new pilot project to enhance community safety in the villages. Another amendment calls for an investigation into whether the Indian Health Service has allocated sufficient resources to help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

My amendments to the Tribal Law and Order Act also repeal the 2003 appropriations riders that deny tribal court grants to the Sitka Tribe and other tribes in the organized boroughs. At the 2003 AFN Convention I told you those riders were wrong. I still think so today.

I know that you are all interested in healthcare reform. We are making progress in reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. You will recall that the Senate passed the bill in February 2008 by a margin of 83 to 10. But the House did not act on the bill. The Indian health bill has been reintroduced. As the lead Republican Senator on a new version of the bill I will work hard to get it passed.

There are two things that we need to be watching for in the national healthcare debate. The first is that Native people who are IHS beneficiaries should not be required to purchase health insurance if they don't want it.

The second involves the Indian Health Service budget. There is much disagreement over whether the national healthcare initiative will save money or increase the deficit. President Obama has said that he will cut federal spending if it increases the deficit.

This could mean across the board cuts or rescissions in federal programs. The Indian Health Service budget has suffered greatly from rescissions in recent years. Indian health needs to be protected from further cuts.

Next year, 2010, marks the 40th anniversary of the Indian Self Determination Act. This Act sets a new course in the federal government's dealings with Native people.

Under the old system, the federal government delivered services to Native people. You were forced to take whatever the federal government offered. If their priorities were off base or the service quality was poor you had no voice.

Under self determination, Native people deliver the services using federal funds. Alaska Natives have used the tools of compacting and contracting wisely. And you have succeeded beyond all expectations.

Time doesn't allow me to rattle off all of the achievements, so let me focus on one. The Alaska Native Medical Center has once again won Magnet recognition for the quality of its nursing program. It is the only hospital in Alaska to achieve this recognition. This is a highly prestigious national honor that puts ANMC on par with the Mayo Clinic. Way to go!

Under self determination you set the priorities. You hire the people. You use the employment opportunities to turn your youth into leaders. You purchase locally. You have become important players in the economy of urban Alaska. This is as it should be.
It is no wonder that Alaskans serve in top leadership positions in nearly every major national Indian organization. It is no wonder that Alaskans consistently win national awards for what you've accomplished in self determination. The pool of talent here in Alaska is virtually endless.

As your servant in Washington, I take great satisfaction in making the promise of self determination a reality. I will continue that fight in the halls of the Congress. With energy and with vigor.

With an appreciation that our challenges- old and new - demand creative solutions.

In my office, Alaska Natives are not forgotten people. The needs of our Alaska Native villages are not forgotten. And I'm supported by a staff whose total years of experience working with your communities well exceeds the 50 years Alaska has been a state.

We've accomplished a lot together over the past six years. In the coming years let us continue to build on these successes. For the good of our Elders, for the good of our youth, and for the good of Alaska. Thank you!