SPEECH: 2015 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention

What a week it has been! On Wednesday, I spoke to the NCAI and AFN Tribal Leadership Conference, where I pledged to work with Alaska’s tribal leaders to re-examine federal laws that stand in the way of real meaningful tribal government.

It was great to spend time with so many wonderful people at the Elders and Youth Conference. I even tried a little beading! Thanks to Liz Medicine Crow and her team at First Alaskans for the conference and all you do throughout the year. And of course the dancing at Quyana last night was fantastic.        

I introduce myself today as the daughter of Frank and Nancy Murkowski, a proud third generation, a girl born in the Tongass. My father came to Ketchikan as a young boy, my mother was born in Nome, where her father was a territorial judge. Her family moved back to Ketchikan when she was very young and were engaged in the battle over statehood.  It may be no surprise to know that I come from a family of strong women. My grandmother on my father’s side was a much loved teacher in Ketchikan. My mother’s mother was the head of the Rhumba Society in Nome and a French Canadian woman who taught me manners.

Delores Churchill has talked story with me about her friendship with my grandmother, drinking tea together, and the acts of kindness shown by my grandfather during the war. My roots run deep here. My ties to the land and the people are strong.

I also introduce myself by my Tlingit name as an adopted member of the Deisheetaan clan. I’ve received many gifts over the years. But none more precious than my Tlingit name -- Aan shaawátk'I, Lady of the Land. I treasure that.

Lady of the land. I could not conceive of any greater honor. Because it is the land that sustains us. And if we act as good stewards of the land it will sustain us forever.

Our grandparents – whether mine or Delores Churchill’s - taught us the same thing. To be self-sufficient and to live sustainably. It is in our DNA that if we don’t pull together for the good of all, we don’t make it. We are not a people who like to depend on Outside for anything. Not for food. Not for fuel. And not for nothing.

If there’s not enough wood for the fire we freeze and if there’s not enough fish, caribou, and moose and whale–we starve. So much has changed since those territorial days but our aspiration to take care of ourselves has not. Modernity has changed Alaska but not our will to be self-reliant.

This convention is dedicated to the heroes in our homeland. This week we are naming names. Our heroes are a diverse lot but they share the traits I have just described. Connection to the land, self-sacrifice, a commitment to others – people who live for the good of all.

When you begin to think about heroes in our homeland you naturally begin with those who wear the uniform. People like Johnnie Ticket, Senior of Selawik, a veteran of the Alaska Territorial Guard. I saw Johnnie off at the airport Tuesday for his Honor Flight to Washington, DC. And I think about our veterans who proudly opened up this convention yesterday morning. Native Americans have served in America’s armed forces in larger numbers than any other group. Our veterans do us proud.

But that’s just the top of the list. The list of heroes in our homeland include all who step up to meet their responsibilities to others—our VPSOs, our community health aides, the village chiefs and tribal administrators, the people who hunt and fish for the Elders, and the whaling crews that share their bounty with the entire community.

The term hero suggests self-sacrifice. And I know no people who sacrifice more than those who have taken up the challenge of addressing the suicide epidemic. But the pain and sorrow in the hearts of the Hooper Bay people weighs heavy on our hearts. To those who work every day to help prevent suicide, my heroes, Jim Biela and Megan Gregory, I’m sad to say that your work is far from done. My list includes friends in the Interior, and across the state, who seek justice for the Fairbanks Four. It includes Samuel John, who seeks to put a name and personal dignity to the homeless. It is the leadership of John Baker and his wellness initiative.  

When I think about the names my grandchildren will ask me about one will surely be Willie Hensley.  That’s an important name to acknowledge as AFN nears 50. Thinking back to that first AFN Convention in 1966, Willie Hensley presented a paper on aboriginal land claims. That was the first item of business before the first AFN Convention. They will be asking why we have buildings named for Morris Thompson and Walter Soboleff. And I will be proud to say that I knew them and their contribution.

When my grandchildren visit the House chamber in Juneau, we will sit in the Elizabeth Peratrovich Gallery and I will explain her struggle for the rights of all. And I will speak of the strong Native women who carried on her legacy in the legislature. People like Eileen MacLean, Irene Nicholia, Mary Sattler and my friend, Senator Georgianna Lincoln, the first Native woman to serve in the Alaska Senate. I will speak of another friend, Joy Huntington, who today serves on the Fairbanks City Council.

Sidney Huntington, who turned 100 years old this year, is a hero to me. Sidney is my hero because he is a living embodiment of Alaska’s heritage – a bridge across the generations. Always reminding me that education is key. Sidney’s book “Shadows on the Koyukuk” ought to be mandatory reading in every schoolhouse in this state. In fact, I feel so passionate about this that I leave Sidney’s book as a gift to the schools I visit. Just this week, I left a copy at the McGrath School.

And let me extend my congratulations to Poldine Carlo and the Carlo family. Yesterday Poldine was awarded the Shirley Demientieff Award. The recipient of the award and the individual for whom it was named were contemporaries. Yes, they were separated in age, but they most certainly were partners in advocacy. Both were fierce advocates for the interests of Native people in the Interior.  They were role models for Native women.  

One of the exceptional things about Alaska is the decades-long investment we have made in revitalizing our Native languages. The next step is to ensure that this rich heritage is reflected in our education system.

Every one of the heroes whose names I have mentioned believed in education. Every one of our great traditional chiefs – Chief Andrew, Chief Peter, Chief Ben Neely, and Paul John - insisted that education is the key to a better future for Alaska’s Native people. 

Last year, in this very hall, the Tanana Chiefs Conference offered a resolution demanding that Alaska Natives peoples have a greater say in the education of Native children.  It passed unanimously.

The resolutions you pass here do have a life after AFN. This year the Senate completed work on a major education bill - the Every Child Achieves Act. I serve on the Senate education committee and worked with our heroes of Native education to align this bill with your aspirations.

The Every Child Achieves Act requires schools to work with Alaska’s tribes and Native institutions to determine how Alaska Native students should best be served.  The same provision requires the State of Alaska to bring tribes and Alaska Native leaders to the table to create and improve state education policies. And we have ensured that programs funded by the Alaska Native Educational Equity Act will be run by our Native people not outsiders. Those are three major steps forward.

So let me name some of my heroes of Native education. They are Rosita Worl, Gloria O’Neill, Melanie Bahnke, Jerry Isaac, Liz Medicine Crow, Jana Harcharek, Hubert Angaiak, Clarence Daniel, Tim Argetsinger, Shirley Tuzroyluke, and Lance Twitchell. These are the people who carried your voice back to Washington.

Over the past year we have made it a priority to ensure that Alaska’s Native heritage is respected in our place names. President McKinley may have been a great President but the name of America’s highest peak was – is – and always will be Denali. And we continue to take pride in the fact that Walter Harper, Athabascan, was the first to reach the summit of Denali. We were able to recognize Walter by the naming of the ranger center in Talkeetna.

Myron Naneng, you were relentless in getting the name of the Wade Hampton Census District changed. And thanks to your persistence the subregion that includes more than a dozen Yupik villages is no longer named for a slave owning confederate General from South Carolina. Thank you, Myron, for allowing me to work with you and with Governor Walker on this issue.

This convention we remember the legacy of Katie John. Yesterday would have been Katie’s 100th birthday.  Before there was a Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park there was the traditional Ahtna Native community of Batzulnetas – “Roasted Salmon Place.” So I would ask the Ahtna people to work with me to find an appropriate way to recognize “Grandma Katie” in the park.

When we think about heroes it is also important to remember that many non-Natives have worked tirelessly to protect Native interests.

Last week, Chief Justice Fabe announced that she would retire from the bench next year. She will be remembered for her efforts to make Alaska’s justice system work for the Native people. And her opinion in John versus Baker will long be regarded as a significant contribution to the body of American Indian law. 

Another hero to this community is attorney Lloyd Miller. Lloyd just won a 940 million dollar class action settlement against the BIA for short changing tribes throughout Alaska who deliver federal Indian programs. He has also won large settlements from the Indian Health Service. I’ve been working with Lloyd to lock in a Contract Support Cost appropriation that is adequate to the need in hopes that the BIA and the IHS will do right by our tribes without having to be sued first.

And we can’t acknowledge Lloyd without also recognizing his wife, Heather Kendall-Miller, who along with Natalie Landreth just finalized a landmark voting rights settlement.

This settlement is important to the future of rural Alaska. It is key to ensuring that rural Alaska has a meaningful opportunity to vote. And a strong federal Voting Rights Act is essential to insure that rural Alaska’s vote is not diluted. Native votes do count!

Last year I promised to you that I would help restore the federal voting rights act so that it enhances access to the ballot box for American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. This year I made good on this promise. I am proud to be the lead Republican cosponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, important civil rights legislation which takes the next step in protecting access to the ballot box for Native people around the country.

Lee Wallace, the President of Saxman Village worked hard for his people. Several years ago the Federal Subsistence Board arbitrarily decided that Saxman was no longer rural for subsistence purposes. That was a wrong that needed to be righted. But the federal government was dragging its feet. Last year I told this convention that I was running out of patience. This year, I introduced a bill to return Saxman’s rural designation and within weeks the Federal Subsistence Board decided to move forward and change Saxman back to rural.

Not only that – they are publishing new regulations that make it harder to take away the rural designations for other communities that have faced the threat – Kodiak, Sitka, even Nome and Barrow. So Lee’s persistence doesn’t just benefit his village, it sets a statewide precedent.

On the healthcare front, I must mention Katherine Gottlieb and Andy Teuber. You and your teams deliver world class healthcare to our Native people. The Veterans Administration is having trouble delivering that quality of healthcare to our veterans in Alaska because of staffing shortages. I brought the VA Secretary in to my office in the Capitol to meet with Katherine and he came to Alaska this summer to visit the Southcentral Wasilla Clinic. There are bureaucrats in the VA who want to break up the lifesaving partnership between the VA and the Native health system. But working together we’re not going to let that happen.

There are so many people who have inspired me in the last year.

Julie Kitka had a partner in bringing the President to Alaska. Kind of our secret agent in the White House. Reina Thiele. She is President Obama’s top Native liaison, and she is one of ours – enrolled to Pedro Bay.

This summer I traveled to Iguigig in the Bristol Bay Region and had the pleasure of meeting Alexanna Salmon. Alexanna attended Dartmouth College and returned home to build a sustainable future for her villages. The first big project was a four-season greenhouse that grows vegetables for the village.

What the village elders don’t need for food is sold to fishing lodges and the proceeds are reinvested in the village. The greenhouse is powered by wind turbines. A run of river turbine was inserted. We are going to be seeing a lot more of these kinds of projects as our young people return home. They call this social enterprise – formulating projects that make a profit while serving a social need.

Hugh Patkotak from Wainwright was meant to fly. He went outside to learn and then came home to serve the North Slope as a search and rescue pilot.

Today, Hugh leads Wainwright’s village corporation, Olgoonik, and he is giving back.  The next big thing in aviation is commercial unmanned aircraft. And Hugh is pioneering in this field for the benefit of the next generation.

As ice continues to melt in the north, the world is entering our back yard to explore and do business in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. This will create new and possibly game changing economic opportunities for Western Alaska. Young Native entrepreneurs like Hugh Short from Bethel and Sarah Lukin from Port Lions have formed P-T Capital to ensure that Alaskans reap the benefits. Meanwhile Nikoosh Carlo has been back in Washington helping drive federal Arctic policy from inside the administration.

We need Alaskans at the head of this table for another reason. To ensure that the desires of those who operate in the Arctic are properly reconciled with the need to protect and enhance traditional cultures and marine resources. We must walk into the future together.

I want to close with one last recognition. I have not met Frank and Helena James from Goodnews Bay, AVCP Parents of the Year.

Our homeland is blessed with many heroes. Culture bearers, artists, entrepreneurs, health care visionaries, engineers and technologists. Each and every one of them is rooted in the future but even more important every one of them is rooted to this community, its traditions and its values. I know I have said it before to this convention, but it bears repeating. Tribal communities throughout the Lower 48 look up to Alaska for the way we develop our Native human resource. We are an incubator for innovative Native leaders. And that is because we invest in our people. These are people whose work I am proud to support and proud to partner with.

In a few moments I will turn the program over for a presentation on LNG and then to folks from the Rasmuson Foundation who are working on the state’s financial crisis. I don’t want to minimize the challenges that they are going to talk about. But I would like to leave you with the thought that it’s not the weight of the challenge that matters; it is the quality of the people sitting at the table to solve these problems. And given the quality of our heroes in this homeland I feel quite certain that the future of this state and of our Native people is in good hands. Thank you and good morning. Gunalcheesh.