SPEECH: 2016 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention

OCTOBER 21, 2016

I am so pleased to join you at the 2016 AFN Convention, Alaska’s great family reunion. At AFN we speak with each other in different languages and different ways. In Native languages and in English. But also in ways that transcend language: in dance, in art, in spirituality, and in fellowship. That’s what makes this a favorite event for me each year. We thank the Athabascan peoples of Interior Alaska for allowing us to come together in their homeland.

Every AFN Convention is special, but this year, AFN celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding. Think about all of the leaders AFN has given the state. Emil Notti, Don Wright, Willie Hensley, John Schaeffer, Morris Thompson, Georgianna Lincoln, Tim Towerak, Jake Adams, Oliver Leavitt, Albert Kookesh. Let’s not forget our Honorable Lieutenant Governor – Byron Mallott. And there are many, many more. The influence of AFN on Alaska’s history is nothing less than profound.

AFN is also a showcase for the new generation of Alaska’s leaders. Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle delivered a powerful keynote address yesterday. I am so proud of Megan.

We also celebrate the success of other strong Native women – Audrey Hudson, Mayor of Metlakatla. And congratulations go out to Vivian Kortheis the first woman to serve as CEO of AVCP.

Now to my 14th annual report to the AFN Convention. The Alaska congressional delegation has historically focused a great deal of energy on Native issues. Some of the Native issues we work on, like reauthorization of NAHASDA and reforming the 477 Indian Employment Program, are national in scope. Others are statewide, regional, village-specific, or personal. But whether the issue is big or small, global or personal, we work them hard and get results. And we synchronize our efforts with AFN, NCAI, and NIEA for education, with the health board, and with the housing authorities. Working together we deliver results!  

The Pentagon wanted to cut off pensions to about 26 Native elders still living who served in the Alaska Territorial Guard. The delegation came together and we shamed the Pentagon into restoring the pensions for these honorable veterans.

There was a time when you couldn’t get dental care in the village. Then came the innovative Dental Health Aide Therapist Program. The dentist lobby tried to shut it down. We pushed back and won. Not only is the program flourishing – it has expanded to the Lower 48. That started here. That started with you.

There was a time when our veterans in rural Alaska had to fly to Anchorage to get VA healthcare – at their own expense. We held the first Senate hearing on this issue in 2007. Valerie Davidson and Nelson Angapak were among the witnesses.  The VA tried to blow us off but we would not give up. Today Alaska veterans can get their healthcare from our extraordinary tribal health system.

When the Fairbanks Four needed someone to make the Justice Department aware of their fight for freedom, I was there to help you. I was proud to take up the cause for you and the Fairbanks Four are free today.  

Just months ago I heard from the tribal judge in Sand Point that drugs are coming through the mail. We put the Chief Postal Inspector in Washington on it.

You tell me the drug problem is everywhere. On Wednesday, I got the Postal Inspectors and the Troopers together in Anchorage to formulate a long term strategy for keeping drugs out of all of our villages.

The youth asked me to come out to Little Diomede because spice was destroying their community. I traveled to the community to lend my support.

Galena floods and FEMA brings in first timers to Alaska from the Lower 48. As expected they were messing things up from the start. We made sure they learned Alaska geography. Then we got them working with the tribe to get the job done.

When the Federal Subsistence Board decided Saxman wasn’t rural for subsistence and wouldn’t listen to reason, I introduced legislation and suddenly the problem got fixed.

The idea of co –management in fish and game has been around for decades. And there are numerous examples of how well it works with marine mammal species in coastal Alaska. We are working to make it a reality in the rest of the state with $2 million in funding and a mandate that the Interior Department formulate a meaningful co-management plan.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs Providers Conference in November is the one opportunity for tribes to come into Anchorage each year and work with BIA on village-centered issues. Then out of the blue BIA announced there would be no 2016 conference because their contractor pulled out. We’ve fixed this problem. There will be a BIA provider’s conference this November because I won’t take no for an answer.

We are accustomed to the federal government telling us they know how to run Alaska better than we do.  But now the states are getting into the act.  States like California and New Jersey prohibit their residents from owning ivory. It’s supposed to protect the African elephant but it is having a very negative effect on our traditional artists and artisans. We’re certainly not going to tolerate overreach from Lower 48 legislatures!

Let’s get a bit more global. If you were to ask a tribal leader, what is your biggest frustration with Washington, they are likely to tell you funding. Congress creates federal Indian programs but they are chronically underfunded.

As Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the BIA and the IHS, I’m doing something about that. The Indian Health Service has let our Village Built Clinics fall apart. That stops now. I added money they didn’t ask for 2016. BIA read the tea leaves and for 2017 we are seeing serious money for Village Built Clinics.

The BIA isn’t adequately funding “small and needy” tribes – that means us. Our tribes depend on BIA funding to keep the tribal office operating. The 2017 Interior Appropriations bill sends an extra dose of financial support.

A big ticket item -- the Indian Health Service was shortchanging our tribal providers on the Contract Support Costs they were due under their compacts. We put an end to that!

Earlier this week I heard someone say that public safety in our villages is a state matter. Public safety in our villages is a tribal matter too, and that makes it a federal matter. The Justice Department has stepped up with support for VPSOs and Tribal Police Officers, but BIA can do more.

For the second year in a row I have added $10 million to BIA’s budget for tribal courts in Alaska and other PL 280 states. We’re making headway but we’ve got to keep their feet to the fire.

Alaska Legal Services is a major partner of AFN and our tribes. Its federal funding comes through the Legal Services Corporation. I serve on its appropriations subcommittee and supported a $10 million increase in its budget.

Alaska occupies very strategic geography to our nation’s military. Our congressional delegation worked hard to bring the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Eielson Air Force Base and build a new missile defense radar at Clear Air Force Station down the road. Along with those projects comes a billion dollars in new construction right here in Alaska and thousands of new jobs.  I am doing my best to ensure those jobs will be filled by Alaskans. And I will insist that our Native people are well represented in that workforce.

You listen to the political talk shows and all they say is that DC is dysfunctional, too partisan and nothing gets done. Not true when it comes to Native issues. When it comes to Native issues we see a great deal of cooperation and bipartisanship.

My bipartisan energy bill – which could be the first one signed into law in a decade – passed the Senate and is being conferenced with the House of Representatives. As Chairman of the Energy Committee, I have made rural energy costs one of my top priorities. I know how high those costs are, and how staggering their burden can be.

The energy bill will enable our communities to produce more of their local energy resources, from hydropower to biomass and geothermal to harnessing the power of the river as people of Iguigig are doing. It will open up federal financing that can be used for cost-lowering projects in our villages. And it will promote innovation in microgrids and energy storage – technologies that make a big difference in getting us off of diesel. All of these are steps in the right direction.

From the Indian Affairs Committee -- Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and I teamed up to create a national commission to examine solutions to the challenges Native children face. President Obama signed it into law last Friday.

The bill is intended as a living memory to two outstanding Native leaders from our respective states: the late Alyce Spotted Bear, a renowned educator on the Fort Berthold Reservation. And from Southeast, the late Dr. Walter Soboleff, one of our most beloved culture bearers.  What a fitting tribute to Dr. Soboleff’s legacy!

And while on the subject of children… This year I devoted time and effort to modernizing the major federal law governing elementary and secondary education. This bill was called the “Every Student Succeeds Act.” ESSA for short. It is now law and that law reflects many of the suggestions I received from Alaska’s Native educators.

First, you asked me to support your work to revitalize our Native languages and bring those languages back into our schools.  I included a new grant program—with guaranteed funding built in—that will help schools not only teach Native languages, but teach basic curriculum in Native languages. 

Second, you asked me to give you back control over your children’s schools. ESSA requires that schools consult with tribal representatives in deciding how to use federal education dollars. 

And third, you asked me to give you more control over the Alaska Native Educational Equity Program funding. I amended the law so that the $32 million a year in ANEP funds will now only go to Alaska Native tribes and organizations.

Alaska’s tourism industry remains a bright spot in our economy, but we need to find ways for Native people to participate and benefit from it. This year we passed the NATIVE Act, which will help the tribes to bring tourists to visit our Native communities. Senator Schatz of Hawaii was my partner on this important bill, and it, too, has been signed into law.

There’s much more I have to say but in the interest of time I will close here.  I want you to know this. I approach every issue facing Alaska Natives with energy, depth, and determination. I am humbled by the trust that my colleagues in the Senate and our Native leadership place in me. Over time, Senators gain reputations as expertise in particular subjects. I’m blessed to have earned the respect of my colleagues for expertise both in energy and in Native issues.

I will fight for you, and for Alaska, every single day that I am able.

Congratulations again to AFN on 50 years—I wish you a wonderful convention. Anna Basse. Mahsi Cho.