Senator Murkowski Addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives

Senator Speaks On AFN's Accomplishments, Need for "Success Beyond Barriers"

There is nothing better than being home and it is so wonderful to be at the annual gathering, this annual family gathering that we call AFN.  I thank you for opening your homes, your schools, your communities to me as I travel across the state.  And I thank you for the warm welcome you show me as we gather together every year.   You need to know that my heart is truly filled with the love that I feel you share with me.  That’s not something that political leaders like to talk about- love and the heart, but that is truly what you give me and I say thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I would like to recognize here this morning our leadership here at AFN.  President Julie Kitka, Co-Chairs Albert Kookesh and of course Ralph Anderson, good strong leaders that have been with us for years, respected Elders, chiefs and delegates that are joined.  And I would also like to give a special Aloha welcome to my very dear friend Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii who is being recognized this week.  He has not only been a personal friend to me, he and his wife together have been leaders on behalf of the people Hawaii and they have been friends to us here in Alaska and truly a long-time ally here at AFN.  So to my friend Senator Akaka, who is going to be leaving us in Washington, DC to go back to his beautiful islands to spend time with his family, I say mahalo, I say thank you, and I am so pleased to be able to embrace him in our cooler weather but to offer him a level of thanks.

This morning we are talking about the theme of AFN’s Convention: “Success Beyond Barriers.”  This isn’t any new concept that is out there.  This has a concept that has been the defining attribute of our state truly for generations.  It evokes confidence, it evokes a self reliance and really the belief that nothing, nothing impossible. You truly helped demonstrate that, that nothing is impossible.  When you came together as a native community from Metlakatla in the south, to Barrow, out to the Aleutian chain, when you came together in that somewhat improbable write-in campaign in 2010.  You came together to demonstrate that nothing really is impossible – and that through unity, incredible things are going to happen.  So don’t ever question the power and strength and the unity the power of your vote.  I have been looking around and a lot of you past day and a half here and seeing a lot of those buttons that say “Native Vote Counts,” believe it, believe it because you made it happen.

I wanted to share a little bit of a story, a history with you – a few weeks ago I went to Fairbanks to attend a memorial life celebration for an Athabascan leader from the interior of the state, we lost a respected Elder Mr. Richard Frank.  I think it’s important to take a few minutes this morning because Richard’s life really personified “Success Beyond Barriers.” I’d like to share a bit of it with you – as an example of how obstacles are overcome.

For those of you that did not know him, Richard Frank was the Traditional Chief of Minto. In 1963, the State of Alaska was beginning to select its land under the terms of the Statehood Act.  It wanted to turn Minto Lakes, the subsistence grounds of Minto’s people, the state wanted to turn the area into a recreation area that would bring outside hunters into that area.  The people of Minto had claims to the land that had pending for decades with the Interior Department, but at that point in time there was no settlement of Native land claims, and the Interior Department wouldn’t act.

Richard was concerned.  He feared that the competition for subsistence would cause his people to go hungry. He pled, he pled to basically anyone that would listen, and he asked for help, and he brought a room to tears with his very powerful words.  He said “Nothing is so sorrowful as for a hunter, empty handed, to be greeted by hungry children.” People listened, they were sympathetic but they really didn’t offer any solutions other than hope.

Then Richard met Howard Rock, and we know and him and remember him, an Inupiaq who published one of Alaska’s most respected newspapers of the day, The Tundra Times.  Richard took a risk in reaching out to Howard, because in that time, in the day, Eskimos and Athabascans viewed each other as rivals. But Richard needed a partner.

That risk paid huge dividends and generated a pretty important life lesson. The lesson was that there is strength in unity; this was one of your themes of your AFN Convention in years past.  And it wasn’t just Richard, others joined with Richard and Howard to freeze the transfer of land to the State until the land claims of Alaska’s Native people were settled. The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, which had championed the civil rights of Alaska Natives back in the 1930s and 1940s, joined in the effort.  It truly was a united push in which very longstanding cultural differences were set aside in the fight for a greater good.

It’s important to remember how that all came together.  It was not accidental; there were risks taken, there were initiatives that were achieved.  And as I mention the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Sisterhood, I think is important to congratulate them an incredibly successful and powerful Native entity now one hundred years old.  I was in Sitka just last month to be able to celebrate and recognize with them.  It is worth celebrating a hundred years of making good things happen.  To ANB I say thank you.

During this period, an important new umbrella organization was created – the Alaska Federation of Natives. It was created to help people like Howard Rock and Richard Frank, and all of our Native people, achieve success notwithstanding the very powerful barriers that stand in our way.  And the Alaska Federation of Natives remains as important today, just as it was when it was created.

Think about it - the battle of food security was not won with the passage of the Land Claims Settlement. Here in 2012, we are still fighting the battle of food security.  We need to look no further than the Park Strip, where on Wednesday some 200 people gathered together to rally, to energize Alaskans about the need for their subsistence foods, their food security.  It was not resolved decades ago, it is still with us today.

As we see changes with our Smartphone, the Internet and cable television, the children of rural Alaska still depend upon the efforts of subsistence hunters and fishers, just as they did in the days when Richard Frank was still leading his crusade.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So long as the futures of Alaska’s Native peoples are threatened by food and energy security issues, there is an urgent need for the unifying force of the AFN.  A force to be reckoned with not only in Juneau, but also 4000 miles away in Washington, DC.

I am honored to stand before you now for the tenth time as your United States Senator – seems hard to believe it’s been 10 years, but I’ve had that opportunity to discuss and listen and to share so much with you over the years.  And, as we talk about the challenges, sometimes they weigh us down so much, because they are heavy.  But it is important to recognize that in this past decade the status of our Native people is improving.  And sometimes we get so focused on the achievements in front of us right here right now; how much I am paying for fuel, how much I’m paying for my electricity, the fights that we have.  So it is important to acknowledge some of the successes that have been achieved by your leadership both in Juneau and in Washington.

I have had an opportunity to bring up and discuss a number of highly controversial issues from this podium and then went back to Washington to work on them. I stood with you on questions of tribal status and against regionalization. A decade ago, you can recall there was a raging debate over whether Alaska’s 229 tribes were legally recognized.  I am pleased that that debate is long over.

Today, your Alaska Delegation recognizes the legitimacy of Alaska’s tribes and their important role in village governance.  We recognize that there are differences of opinion among the federal government, the state and the tribes over the scope of tribal powers.  I remain committed and I hope you are committed to working with all parties to resolve differences over these powers in a way that truly makes rural governance work.

Toward this end, I have defended federal funding for tribal police and tribal courts.  As a consequence of my work that I’ve been doing on the Tribal Law and Order Act, Chickaloon Village is once again receiving federal funds to support their tribal public safety department.  And regional entities like AVCP, BBNA, Kawerak and Tlingit and Haida have collectively received more than a million dollars to train and equip Village Public Safety Officers in their regions.

Building on our success with the federal Tribal Law and Order Act I am working on a plan now to partner the tribal courts, the Department of Public Safety, and the Alaska Court System to work together to address public safety problems in our villages. We are examining innovative approaches like diverting cases from state courts to tribal courts and circle sentencing to improve safety and doing so in a culturally relevant way.

I am going to keep up my fight with the BIA to ensure that Alaska enjoys parity with the Lower 48 when it comes to tribal court funding.   I know Kevin Washburn is with us this weekend here at AFN.  And I hope Kevin is listening.  I am speaking as your appropriator now: It’s important that Alaska have that parity at the BIA for our tribal courts, because it has not been there and we are going to continue to work on it.

I mentioned Kevin Washburn, he has stepped up as you know, confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.  This is a tough job; there are 30 reforms that are needed within the BIA. But when pressed, they did step up for us.  This year, the domestic violence shelter in Emmonak faced – they were on the edge of shutting down, but we pushed and got their attention.   The BIA made $50,000 in available emergency funds available to keep the shelter doors open.  They heard you; they heard us, that was good news and necessary news for the region.

Just as an aside – this is a thanks from me to you for your help in ensuring that we can pass the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.  It is absolutely unthinkable in my mind, unforgivable in my mind that as a Congress we have not been able to secure this passage.  It has been caught in politics which is grossly unmentionable, and we have time before the end of the year in this lame duck session to advance it.  So thank you for working with me to ensure that we advance and make current again the Violence Against Women Act, it is a priority for you, it is a priority of me, so thank you for that.

Even with all of this progress, the federal government needs to be a stronger partner in protecting the safety of Alaska Natives.  It has to start with meaningful tribal consultation.  I have been working to make sure that all agencies of the federal government understand that tribal consultation does not mean in one ear and out the other.  It means acting in harmony with tribal desires.  Toward that end, I would like to see the joint Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission become a permanent forum for coordinating safety in the villages with an increased tribal presence around the table.   We’ve got to do more, we must do more to make sure that that consultation is meaningful, is real, and does empower you.

I have never stood before you at AFN and not taken a moment to thank those that have served our nation.  Those men and women who put on the uniform who have served us currently in Afghanistan, or whether it was those who came together with the Alaska Territorial Guard to protect and defend our homeland.  In fact, I was reminded, it was exactly eight years ago yesterday, that Sam Herman was presented on the Park Strip, with his ATG certificate.  Long overdue, and it is a reminder to me that when the patriotism and support that we see from Alaska Natives all around the state that serve our country is one that should be recognized, applauded, and truly given our thanks.  To all our veterans, and to our families who support our veterans, to those who are currently serving, a deep gratitude for your service, and thank you for that.

I have been working hard since the earliest days of our involvement in Iraq to ensure that rural Alaska veterans do not suffer discrimination in accessing their earned veterans’ benefits.  Since 2006, we have been pushing the VA to reduce the cost of transporting rural veterans to Anchorage by partnering with the Native health system for their care.

This is a matter of fundamental fairness.  Since the earliest days of our Nation, our Native people have served in the Armed Forces more than any other group.  Whether in the Territorial Guard, the National Guard or the active branches, military service has provided Alaska’s Native peoples with opportunities to build leadership skills and explore career opportunities.  You may not know this, but there is only one elite airborne brigade in the entire National Guard.  A company of that brigade is headquartered in Bethel and has spent the past year in Afghanistan. Only one elite airborne brigade in the National Guard, and it belongs to us in Bethel.

And when we talked to the VA Secretaries over the years, they have said bringing VA care to rural Alaska would be too big a change in the VA’s culture.  But, General Eric Shinseki, the current VA Secretary agreed to take it on.  Thanks to his leadership and working with us, the Native health system will be able to bill the VA for the cost of caring for rural veterans and our rural veterans will get that care closer to home.  So I appreciate what he has done.

Now I need to ask you a favor.  Many of our Alaska Native veterans have not registered for VA services because these services have not been available out in rural areas.  But now that the VA has agreed to bring these services to the people, it is important for our veterans to register and use them.  So please, I would ask that the VA has a booth downstairs and I urge you to sign up and register.

There is another VA initiative that I have been involved with and I am very proud of.  That is the Tribal Veteran Representative program.  We have now over 100 people have gone for training at government expense to help rural veterans navigate the VA system.  These people are important resources for our veterans and we thank them for their service.

Now while we are talking about health care, it should not go without notice and recognition, the good things that are coming out of our Alaska Native health system.  Think about Southcentral – Southcentral Foundation winning the Baldridge National Quality Award.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with what that might mean, let’s just sum it up by saying this is monumental.  This is an award that every one of the Fortune 500 companies covets and very few ever achieve. But Katherine Gottlieb and the Southcentral Foundation team have brought this home, thank you for what you have done for providing this level of excellence.

And think about the time in which all this was achieved – we all know about the budget cuts.  We’ve seen these successes within our health care system at a time when we have budget shortfalls in an already chronically underfunded Indian Health Service.  I serve on that appropriations committee, the Interior Appropriations Committee, and in fact I am the ranking member and it has been a priority of mine to ensure that there is adequate funding for IHS.

We know about the budget cuts.  We know our country is staring at $16 trillion in debt.  I tell you, we might not know exactly what will happen with the lame duck, we might not know exactly what will happen with Sequestration, but one thing I can give you assurance on; we are not going to see that federal funding pie enlarge.  It is not going to be growing.  But, what I will commit to you is that I will do all that I can to ensure that the federal government upholds its trust responsibilities to Alaska Native people through adequate funding.  To make sure we don’t end up with the short end of the stick.  We will work with you on that.

Looking back on 10 years standing before you – I made a promise to you that I would listen.  Listen to individuals, go out to our Native communities, our villages and listen to you.  That means more than just showing up at a gathering, where conveniently, you all come to town, and I show up for a day or two, take a bunch of picture and call it good, check the box.  That’s not how I operate.   It means visiting Native communities, it means going into your homes, and it means doing it all year round, even when the weather isn’t great.  We’re Alaskans, we deal with it.  We don’t wait until the weather is good and the fishing is good.  We need to talk to one another all the time.

Last night, as I was getting ready for bed and thinking about today, I did kind of a mental inventory of the villages and communities I have visited just this year, not including what we did in 2011.

This is in no order other than my random thoughts last night: I have been in Metlakatla, Gustavus, Klukwan, Saxman, Adak, Grayling, Fort Yukon, Galena, Beaver, Stevens Village, Holy Cross, Tanana, Ruby, Aniak, Kalskag.  I met with AVCP in Bethel, I was in Kotzebue, Nome, Kaktovik, Barrow, Attu, Kodiak, and Healy Lake.  I attended Celebration in Juneau, I visited the kids at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka, I was in Fairbanks, Cordova, Wrangell, and Yakutat.  And, it’s only October.  I am making that effort to be with you and understand.  I learn so much by being with you. It is from these conversations that we have had that really helped me set my agenda, not only for what I wanted to say today, but really, for the upcoming year.

This is an election year, and in other parts of the country, they are talking about campaigns or the presidential race, or why the Senate always seems to be gridlocked with a filibuster.  I can tell you, in every corner of this state that I went to, every village and every community, it’s pretty simple.  It boiled down to two things: the cost of energy and it was fish.  Think about that; how basic the need we are talking about.  We are talking about the need to stay warm and the need to feed our families.  In Alaska, it is pretty basic.  There is no political B.S., ok, maybe there’s a little of that, but it’s basic stuff.  We can’t lose sight of that.

When I go back to Washington, D.C., it is important for me to stay grounded.  Those things that matter to you; how are you are going to feed your families?  How are you going to keep warm?  That’s what I need to be taking back to D.C., not how we are going to revise the rules to change filibuster.  I need to listen to you, so I thank you and stay grounded and focused.

We in Congress have a moral obligation to tackle these issues.  Al Adams understood this.  He championed the Power Cost Equalization program in the Legislature.  He said the soul of Alaska is lost when we can no longer live in our traditional communities.

We are all talking about what is going on with fish, fish disasters and the low King salmon returns.   We know the devastating impact on our fisheries and our communities.  We are all working together in this Delegation to make sure people knew what was coming their way.  That they understood the King run would be weak.  I wrote to the key federal players early in the season to make them aware that King returns to Alaska were weak and asked that they make all appropriate federal resources available.  I also led the delegation in letters written in support of AFN’s and the Governor’s request for commercial fisheries disasters for the Kuskokwim River, Yukon River, and Upper Cook Inlet. We were successful in obtaining fishery disaster declarations from the Department of Commerce.  But, you have got to remember, this is unlike the disasters declared for earthquakes and hurricanes.  There is no standing fund within the federal government to help those adversely affected by fishery disasters. We have to get a direct specific appropriation to fund relief from fishing disasters.

As many of you recall for the 2008 and 2009 Yukon River fishery failures, this takes time.  It took until January 2010 for the Commerce Department declared the disaster, but it was the end of July before we got Congress to appropriate federal funds for activities like net exchanges and recycling of nets. This is something we have to be working on now to make sure we don’t have this drag of time.

Additionally, we have the federal subsistence program.  The Administration proposed a $2.9 million reduction for the program. I mentioned that I am the Ranking Member of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.  I made sure that the draft Senate bill provides at least the same amount as last year – $12.9 million – for the Alaska Subsistence Program.  I am working to direct the Fish and Wildlife Service to use a portion of these funds specifically for Chinook salmon monitoring and assessment.  This work is important.  We need to understand what is happening out there.  Is this a 1 year fish disaster or a decade disaster? If it is, we need to be doing something different, ladies and gentlemen.  We need to figure out how we deal with this, so we need to understand, and we need you need to have a seat at this table. When it comes to sound resource management, science and traditional knowledge go hand in hand, so we need you there working with us.

I want to talk about energy just a moment.  We’ve got stories all over this room about the challenge of not having enough money to buy fuel or to buy food, but not to do both.  I was in Aniak a few weeks ago and we had a town hall.  The first person to come up to me was a woman with a 3 month old foster child that she had taken in.  She handed me what I thought was a note.  It wasn’t a note, it’s her bill for home heating fuel. And, she was in tears when she gave me this.  She said ‘I could only afford 5 gallons of fuel because I have this baby to feed and this is how much money I had.’ When she has more, she will buy more fuel.  This receipt is dated October 1st and it’s still not that cold in Aniak.  I carry this in my purse along with her electric bill she shared with me as a reminder.  We are talking about energy and we are talking about prices.  It’s real and it’s human and it’s causing people to weep.  How to do fix this?  It’s critical.

We’ve addressed each of these issues as humanitarian emergencies that demand a federal response.  We go around the rest of the country and people’s consciences are shocked to hear reports that people are freezing to death or truly dying of hunger. The responses however are Band-aids that get us through a winter but don’t protect us from the next crisis, which is probably next year.

I’ve gotten the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide additional General Assistance funds to Emmonak, which was suffering terribly. Many faith-based organizations also answered the call. And we all remember the story last year when Nome got assistance from the Coast Guard to get fuel there.

We have the LIHEAP Program, The Low Income Heating Assistance– is another federal tool to avoid heating emergencies. It is a necessary resource, but  that fact of the matter is, it is not enough.  Alaska shares in the pot of LIHEAP funds with all of the other states out there, and there is not enough.

We have got to stop with the Band-aids!   We have got to stop with the short-term things just to get through this winter.  We need a solution.  We have got to do better as a state, and as a people to address our long term energy needs.

For the past several years we have grieved about how the high cost of energy is forcing people of out the villages. But, this is not just an issue in rural Alaska anymore.  Talk to anyone who is living in Fairbanks.  The number one topic of conversation in Fairbanks this fall is that people are fleeing the urban Interior because of the high energy costs. We need to make sure that as the state works diligently everyday on a solution for Fairbanks and for all parts of the state and at the same time, that we don’t forget about the chronic energy problems that plague rural Alaska.

A few years ago the Alaska Energy Authority under Steve Haagenson’s leadership, went village by village, to put together a statewide energy inventory and assess the prospects for homegrown energy to reduce dependence on diesel. There were some good sustainable alternatives were identified, and that was good, that was positive.   Some communities unfortunately were told basically, there is no better solution out there and will depend upon Power Cost Equalization subsidies until technology offers a better solution.  That is not acceptable.

Look at where we have seen some gains.  In Tanana, they have a wood biomass project.  Ruby is pursuing a waste heat generation facility.  Craig, on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska, has had a biomass facility for several years now. We have seen successes with wind in Southcentral and Western Alaska and on Kodiak.  Now, when you fly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, you see the serious Fire Island Wind project.  It is a great reminder that as a state, a state recognized as an oil state, that we too look to the future and it’s renewables. It’s right there as you fly into the airport; wind turbines just clicking along.  It’s a good sight to see and we need more.

This state, even though it is one of the few states that is currently running on a budget surplus, Alaska cannot carry this financial burden alone. As Ranking Member of the Senate Energy Committee, I have been working on legislation to fill that gap with federal funding, whether for geothermal, hydropower or ocean energy.  Just last month we added aid for a biomass demonstration project in an Indian energy package.  This is an appropriate use of federal funds even in tight budget times. I think it is important to recognize that the sustainability of Indian communities is a uniquely federal responsibility.  So, this is an appropriate role for our federal government.

I believe, and I believe strongly that we need a nationwide energy policy for Indian Country and it needs to address the critical need for affordable energy in rural Alaska. Think about what is happening in the rest of the country.  In the 1920s and 1930s the federal government had a grand vision; to fund TVA and Bonneville dams to bring lower-cost power to impoverished areas of Appalachia and the Pacific Northwest. If they were able to do that back in 1930 and 1940, why can’t our government step up and help to bring Alaska’s energy systems into the 21st Century?

Since the federal government controls more than 60 percent of Alaska’s lands and its resources, it has a moral obligation to do more to reduce energy costs that are truly snuffing out village life and driving Alaska Natives off their lands. We need the help of everyone in this room to educate and convince everyone to accelerate progress on providing lower-cost energy to rural Alaska.

We’ve got so many smart people with so many good ideas.   I know you are going to entertain a resolution that Meera Kohler has been talking about; using our natural gas to provide electricity.  Think about the concept of using our resources to not necessary fill up our treasury, but to improve the quality of life by lowering energy costs throughout the State of Alaska.  Why should that be some big dream?  Why can’t we do more to make this happen?

We need to put our best and brightest, we need to put our young people and the enthusiasm and energy of our youth, put their education and brainpower to work in the search for new solutions.  I am convinced finding the solution to any problem facing rural Alaska rests with the brain power of Rural Alaska.  This is the charge, the task that I give to young people when I go out to the schools.  In every community, I visit the schools and I push on this.  When I was at Mt. Edgecumbe when I sat in the cafeteria with a couple hundred of those smart, smart kids, when I met with the kids at Galena and we were talking about issues, I said, ‘You guys, you kids can make this happen.  Get excited about it.  Let’s think about a sustainability that you help bring about because you have worked to find these energy solutions that work for your community.’ So, challenge one another.

It is not just about challenging our young people on energy.  It’s also about getting more young people to Washington, so that the federal government’s Ivory Tower solutions are driven by traditional knowledge.  We need that back there and we have had a couple of people step up.  Kristi Williams is back with me in Washington, D.C. doing a great job.  Andrea Gusty has left the world of T.V. to come deliver the message here in my Alaska offices.  We have got so many bright and energetic young people.    From the mayor of Holy Cross to Joy Huntington who is going to be speaking to you tomorrow, wow!  Let’s do more to empower all that our young people have to offer.

I am going to conclude my remarks, I know I have taken up much of your morning, but I have a passion for what I am doing on your behalf and I want to convey that to you.  I want to conclude where I began; talking about Richard Frank.  A lot of people don’t know about what he did.  He was a humble man and he never bragged about the significant role that he played in the history of post-statehood Alaska.  I fear that we may lose that history of the folks that have done so much, whether it is Richard Frank or Howard Rock or others.

It is important that these names and the contributions associated with them be kept alive for we take strength in our history. Perhaps this is an appropriate place for me to plug the First Alaskans Institute’s upcoming Howard Rock and Ted Stevens Smokehouse Gala on November 30th at the Anchorage Hilton.

Richard Frank’s essential message was that our Native people like all Americans are endowed by the creator with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Richard would tell anyone who listened that making things right for his village was the right thing to do. It is essential that we continue Richard’s fight.

That fight encompasses a broad range of issues. From energy and food security to halting the rates of youth suicide, sexual assault and domestic violence in our communities. From growing meaningful tribal governments to ensuring that Native youth are afforded an education that prepares them for the technology driven world we live in. Mastering each of these challenges is essential to Native survival, it is essential to conquer those barriers to success.

I thank the AFN for its leadership in those advances that have benefited the Alaska Native community since 1966.  Working together, our Native cultures will not merely survive. They will thrive.  I am, once again, blessed and honored to be with you.  God Bless you.   Gunalchéesh.