Senator Lisa Murkowski's speech to the Alaska Federation of Natives

October 26, 2013

Good afternoon

Lead with love. That`s what I learned from Valerie Davidson last week. Lead with love and what we just shared on the screen were voices from youth, voices from elder talking about leadership. When we’re here in these halls leadership and what it means and how it defines what we do is part of the task in front of us. This year marks the tenth year that I have served you in the United States Senate. This is a significant anniversary. When you have a ten year anniversary it’s important to think, it’s important to reflect and do a bit of soul searching. This year I did that soul searching on what is leadership?

Elected officials come to this podium. They come before you here at AFN and quite honestly we’re accustomed to standing in front of you and taking credit for what we have done and making lots of promises. But rarely do we ask you what you expect from us. Nor do we really talk about what leadership means. What it means to you. What it means to us. This year, as I’ve traveled around the state, I’ve focused pretty intently on whether Washington is actually connecting with your needs. We’re 4 000 miles away here in Fairbanks in Alaska and all around our state. We’re 4 000 miles away from Washington D.C. Are we connecting with you? I’m asking whether Alaska Native policy is adapting to the challenges that you face or are we perhaps stuck in a time warp of decades past. I have some thoughts to share with you today and I would welcome that input back from you.

You may wonder why I am asking this question, why are we talking about leadership? It really began when we had a very powerful keynote back in 2009 delivered by Willie and Elizabeth Hensley. I think many of us remember the power of the words from Willie and most certainly from Liz. For 40 years plus the relationship between the Alaska congressional delegation and our Native community has been defined by the framework of the 1971 land claims settlement.

Just on Thursday you heard from Nelson pointed out in his keynote address that many of our Alaska Native Corporations are as strong as they have ever been. The corporations we all know play a very important role in the economic life of our Alaska Native people, in job creation and in advocacy for issues that is absolutely of vital. It’s defined so much and that’s been very significant. And it did not happen by accident. It happened because of considerable hard work and dedication. It’s the result of strong Native leadership working in partnership with so many including your Alaskan congressional delegation.

But that is not to diminish the point that Liz made back in her 2009 keynote address. ANCSA has done much it has done a lot but it is not the be all and end all of Native policy. And I took those comments to heart.

We have great Native institutions in the State of Alaska. But I might suggest today that we have perhaps not paid sufficient attention to empower the village tribes.

If we want to have healthy villages we need strong tribes. We need strong tribal leaders. And our tribal leaders need a direct line to the congressional delegation so that these village priorities are heard and responded to.  You can’t wait for tribal leaders to come to see you. You got to get out, you got to get out and visit the tribal leaders on their people on their turf.

I make it a great point to get out to the villages every chance I get. This allows me not only a connection to the people, but a connection to the land. It allows me to really become grounded again in whom you are and who I am. These trips to rural Alaska allow me to suffer through some of the really tough stuff that we have to deal with in Washington D.C. So thank you for helping me just be anchored again. This summer took me to some great places. I traveled to some fish camps on the Kuskokwim River. I stopped at Phillip Peter’s fish camp. Phillip is from Akiachak. And we’re standing there at the banks of the river and Phillip asked me a question he says: “What do you think of my lifestyle?” and he just opened and spread his arms and it was a little bit of an odd question because it is not for me to judge Phillip’s lifestyle. That is for him to determine.

But if one understands anything about Alaska – not Alaska as a place but Alaska more as a state of mind, there is only one correct answer to Phillip’s question. That is I respect your lifestyle and I admire the sacrifices that you have made.

And that is the right answer and the reason is because it’s authentically Alaskan. The history of our state the history of Alaska doesn’t start with statehood, it doesn’t start with the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay. It starts tens of thousands of years ago with your ancestors. The history of Alaska begins with subsistence.

For your ancestors, subsistence equaled survival. It was as simple as that. There is No Fred Meyer, there is no Costco, there is no SNAP benefit, there was no other alternative.

Survival required that your ancestors managed the lands, the fish and the wildlife wisely; appreciating that they occupied a very special place. And they built a lifestyle – more than lifestyle –an enduring culture built around what the creator has provided. That ten thousand year old culture is very much alive at Phillip Peter’s fish camp and so many around the state. 

On the same trip I went on to visit Ana Hoffman’s fish camp. Lots of kids running around. They watched me. I watched them. The lesson of my visit to Ana’s fish camp is just how important subsistence is to building values to building character in our youth.  In fish camp, children learn where they come from and where their place in the world is. They learn a thing or two perhaps about sacrifice and self reliance because we all know that fish camp doesn’t stop just because it’s raining or the mosquitoes are bad this year. It’s all family it’s that connection.

But I know I’m not telling any of you in this hall today you something you don’t already know. You recognize the educational, the cultural and the moral value of fish camp, as I have learned. But sadly, our public policies our policies set in Washington D.C do not recognize that.

Federal and state subsistence policies should regard fish camp as the foundation which sustains Native culture in all of its dimensions. Because make no mistake about it, subsistence is not just food security, it is cultural security!

Instead, the subsistence regulator often regards fish camp as one of many competing users of an often scarce renewable resource. No more important than other users and all too often even less important. And that really in a nutshell explains why the subsistence law is broken here.          

That is what motivated me you recall last year here at AFN I made a commitment to you that we were going to hold hearings here in Alaska and Washington D.C. I was moved to hold the first hearings on subsistence since passage of the ANILCA. We held them in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It’s that committee which has jurisdiction over ANILCA.

We started that this spring with two listening sessions– one in Bethel and another in Glennallen. These were open mike hearings anybody who wanted to come forward was welcomed to do so and invited to give honest conversation. We had a third hearing – and the official or more formal conventional congressional hearing – in Capitol Hill this fall.

What I heard at those hearings was candid was honest. People spoke from the heart about what subsistence closures mean. In Bethel, they spoke of the pain and of the insult of risking arrest to feed your family. And the pain of trying to explain to your children and your grandchildren why their State -- a state they love, respect and defend -- was stopping them for pursuing their uniquely, indigenously Alaskan tradition.

Out in Glennallen the spirit and teachings of Katie John were felt throughout that hearing. I think we recognize that Katie John may have left us but her life’s work is far from done.

I heard about the pain of having to deal with conflicting federal and state bureaucrats – and the pain of having to deal with trespassers entering Native lands from the road system.

In these hearings we explored the many quite honestly irritating aspects of the federal subsistence program. One of the most irritating is the possibility that communities will lose federal subsistence protections because the bureaucrats determine that they are no longer rural. And we know the communities: Saxman, which is just as much a traditional Native community, as any in the state has already had to suffer this hardship. Sitka, which successfully fought to remain rural several years ago, is once again anxious about losing its status. Even Barrow has often wondered whether it is one economic development opportunity away from losing its rural designation.

None of this is the doing of Congress. ANILCA does not require periodic reviews of rural status, nor did it require the population based criteria that the Federal Subsistence Board uses to determine rural status.

Quite simply the standards of the Federal Subsistence Board these standards use to decide whether a community is rural are ridiculous. In Alaska, rural is not determined by population – it is determined by the character of life in a place. And the character of life in a traditional community does not change based upon whether or not that community gains or loses a few hundred people.

So today I call upon the Federal Subsistence Board to change its ways, change its approach. And I will work with my colleagues in the delegation to achieve what I think is a very necessary change.

I have another problem with the Federal Subsistence Board – that is its composition of the board. Since the very inception of the Federal Subsistence Board the voice of subsistence users has been diluted by the sheer number of  the federal bureaucrats that seem to own their seats on the board. At one time it was one subsistence user to every five bureaucrats. Now it’s five bureaucrats and three subsistence users. We’re improvement but it is not a solution. We can and we will do better.

If you want to change the culture of the Federal Subsistence Board you need to change the faces. Not just for the sake of changing the faces but because increasing diversity on the Federal Subsistence Board will change that conversation that is important.

Long before there ever was a Federal Subsistence Board, Native leaders relied on traditional knowledge to regulate subsistence taking. They did pretty well. They did pretty well out there. Consider that the resources we enjoy today would not be there but for their stewardship. I say that we need to bring traditional thinking and stewardship back into the halls of the Federal Subsistence Board. And I would hope that you would agree with me on that one.

I know that AFN has been working on a series of pilot programs to increase the influence of traditional knowledge in fish and game policy. I intend to bring all of the stakeholders around the table to discuss these, to build on these. Let’s unite around the principle that tribal participation in resource management is not a threat – it is an opportunity, an opportunity to make things better for all users of the resource.

We know that safety in our villages is another critical issue that we must address. This summer I staked out a new direction on public safety in our Native villages. This thinking is reflected in a revised version of the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act that I cosponsored along with Senator Begich who you heard from yesterday. This bill firmly establishes the power of Alaska tribes to issue domestic violence protection orders to protect their people. And that is without regard to whether the offender is a tribal member, a Native or a non-Native.

The bill also recognizes that close and permanent working relationships among tribal, state and federal governments and these are key to any solution. Public safety is yet another area where the State can ill afford to treat Alaskan tribes our tribes as adversaries. They must be treated as equal partners in a government to government relationship. This bill provides federal incentives to bring the state and bring the tribes together.

Another area of critical focus is ensuring the financial stability of tribal programs. You heard from Ed Thomas discussed this at length on Thursday. As the nation contends with its financial difficulties we have to remain vigilant that the federal government honors its trust responsibility to our Native people. It’s not something that is nice to do, it’s an obligation that must be honored and no Native community in this country has embraced self determination and self governance with the passion that we see in Alaska. And no Native community works harder to ensure that the federal government fairly compensates the tribes for the programs and services that our tribes deliver. This is the right fight for just the right reason. So we must continue to focus on this.

Ed Thomas also explained about how the corrosive sequestration is impacting our Indian programs. And I know very well the hurt that our tribes have seen because of sequestration. I’ve never thought that the meat cleaver approach of sequestration was the right way to deal with our debt and I think that Congress needs to find a way to make smarter cuts and strategic reforms here. Because of our trust responsibility, I also think that the Indian Health Service should be shielded from these cuts in much the same way Social, Security, Medicaid and the Department of Veterans Affairs have been. I will be making this case to the Budget Conference Committee when I’m back in Washington when we resume next week. For these past several years, we have made good progress in funding important Indian programs.  We need to continue positive momentum, positive progress moving forward.

The recent government shutdown, the unfortunate government shutdown reminds us that it is not only important we adequately fund the Indian Health Service but that the money arrives on time. I have submitted legislation to ensure that the Indian Health Service begins each fiscal year with a full year’s funding. We’ve done that for the VA again we’re we have a special relationship – we should be doing that also with the IHS. That’s the right thing to do.

I’ve spent a few moments discussing some of the ways I am working to implement your priorities. We are doing a lot but there’s more that must be done. And before I wrap up my remarks I want to recognize we have two women who are with us this weekend who have been instrumental through their support of two amazing men who not only built our state, but built amazing relationships between the 49th and the 50th state: Catherine Stevens and Irene Inouye both with us this weekend as we will have an opportunity to pay tribute to and honor to our dearest senator Stevens and to all the contributions that his friend and brother has done. So I just want to recognize them briefly for a moment. I don’t know if they’re here in the hall? They are right here in front of me! It’s an honor to have them here with us.

We deal with so many difficult issues. We deal with not only the personal internal struggles. We deal with the arguments and the fights we have with our federal government. But really if we’re to have any chance of making progress on the really difficult problems - whether it’s suicide, violence, domestic violence and village sustainability – we can’t keep push things under the rug. We must talk about them. We have to address them up front and honestly and openly even though it may be very difficult, it may be very painful and it may require inner strengthen courage you didn’t know was possible. And I think we saw that at this AFN yesterday. These young people from Tanana who not only had the strength to speak out at the youth and elders, but who spook out yesterday sharing their fairs but with courage from young people you might think not possible. Daring to face some of the things we don’t want to talk about. And so when our children come forward and ask for that help taking that courageous step. It requires all of us as leaders to recognize that courage and help them with their strength and be leaders as well. We must strengthen our leadership to deal with them and we must always be thinking of new ways to tackle the problems. And again this brings me kind of full circle to where I started this conversation. And that is about leadership.

The solutions to the problems that truly mean life or death for the future of our Native culture, for the future of villages and the future of traditional lifestyles is not gonna come from Washington D.C it won’t come from Juneau. The solutions need to start at the village level. They will start with you.

I have every confidence that you are up to this task. When I’m out in the villages no matter how small or whether it is our state’s largest village in Anchorage. I hear honest conversations about how we care for each other and how we treat one another. Honest conversations about life and leadership. And we know life is though. It is horrible difficult though in some places and the hardships are many and it may seem that the glass is more than half empty, but don’t ever forget you have something going on in the village that’s so much of America has perhaps lost. You have community. Community provides the foundation for progress.

My part is to support the villages and reform public policy so it works with you – not against you. Your part is to empower your leaders with support and good ideas which we can work together to implement.  

And don’t ever forget the well of potential leaders’ runs far and deep. Leadership can be found in nearly every aspect of traditional Native culture – it starts in the family, it’s found in the fishing, hunting and whaling camps, in the schools, the tribal councils and all of our other great Native institutions. And it is found in the patriotic Native veterans who defend our freedom. It is found in great educators like Toni Mallott, who is recognized as your Citizen of the Year. It’s found in our young women the fact that Anna and Tara come before you as the new co-chairs two young women leading this amazing organization. Honor the veterans. Support the Elders. Grow the youth because we recognize they are truly the future.

The heritage of this community is proud, your culture is rich, the obstacles you have overcome are great and the contributions that you have made to this state are so very … very many.

Never…never regard yourselves as powerless. And if you start to doubt I take you back to this very hall just three short years ago when you assembled empowered me in a way to step forward and do what everybody on the outside said was impossible, but you said: “We will stand with you Lisa” and we did that. And you did it. You helped prove the power of the native people. Now I might need your help in the not too distant future, but we’ll save that for another convention coming up. The power to make things better resides in each and every one of you. And the righteousness of your cause attracts allies across this great state.

I intend to continue to travels throughout the villages of rural Alaska to listen to your wisdom, to plan with you, and to empower your ideas. This is my pledge and my promise to you and I am confident that working together we will bring about that positive and that enduring change. Change in complete harmony with traditional Native values.

I thank you, I love you.