SPEECH: Alaska Federation of Native Convention 2018

Go-thah-n Die-in. That means “Good Morning” in the Icelandic language. I speak to you today from the Arctic Circle Assembly meeting here in Reykjavik. The Arctic Assembly is the largest international gathering in the Arctic. More than 2000 people are here from 60 different nations, all focused on the region that the indigenous people have shared for tens of thousands of years.  

There was a time when we in Alaska regarded ourselves as remote and isolated. Mostly disconnected by the sea ice from the world around us. But we know that, that is changing. We can see that, that is changing.

Some for the worse because we know how climate change threatens traditional communities and ways of life. The changing Arctic also has implications for US national security, so I am very pleased that Julie has brought and the leadership of AFN have brought our military leaders and have been engaging with military leaders to identify a role for our Native people. The proud descendants of the Alaska territorial guard are able, they are willing, and they are ready to protect US interests in the changing Arctic.

But we also know the Arctic as a frontier of opportunity. It represents one of the last great economic frontiers with opportunities in energy, in minerals, in construction, in tourism, and in shipping. But it is so important that indigenous peoples are at the table to ensure that investment and development in the Arctic are done in the right way — sustainably and with great deference to traditional knowledge and with full participation by indigenous communities.

Our relationships with other people of the Arctic are key as we seek to resolve common challenges.  I just left a breakout session here in Reykjavik where our Alaska panel was focused on community adaptation. I will leave with my comments from you to convene yet another panel of Alaskans where we are speaking to our energy opportunities. And then tomorrow we will have an opportunity to focus on the science in the Arctic regions.

And this explains why I am here in Iceland, to ensure that your interests – your economic interests, your political interests, and your cultural interests are protected in the global public square where then future of our lives as Arctic people are explored and discussed.

Those of you that live in the Bering Strait region, you see the global activity right outside your front door.  Last year I talked about preparing legislation to bring indigenous voices into federal policy making in the Arctic. And when some of you saw the draft language you told me it didn’t achieve what you had hoped.

That what you wanted was what was in the Executive Order that established the Bering Sea Tribal Advisory Council – a dedicated table for tribal leaders to engage in federal policy within their region. Well, we heard you, so we went back to the drawing board and my staff have drafted a new draft that we will be circulating that will establish not only a Bering Sea Tribal Advisory Council like the executive order did, but open the door for similar groups in other regions.

I think it is important to recognize that while we may not always agree, I do thank you for the dialogue that we always, always have.

Know that your voices matter, whether it is in the halls of Washington or in venues across like Reykjavik in other parts of the world. And I want you to know that I’m not just listening to you, but that I hear you. That I carry the stories you share, the insights that you offer and the wisdom you bring with me everywhere I go. And that they give me strength. And that they particularly give me strength when things seem to be very dark.

On a flight that I made to Kotzebue just last month things were very dark. I was struggling. I was thinking about all of the women and the men across Alaska suffering abuse, and living in fear, and living in silence. About a how voices get silenced when a victim does not feel like they have anywhere to go and how those who should be listening often either aren’t available, or perhaps they are just not equipped to help. About how Alaska has the highest rates of sexual assault and domestic violence, how native women suffer violence more than any other group and those are just statistics. Because when we landed in Kotzebue I was not thinking about statistics and numbers – I was thinking about Ashley Johnson-Barr.

I was there with so many to grieve. I was there to share prayers with her family and with her community.  And what I felt there was a strength, it was a resolve, it was a commitment from the community we can and will be stronger and we will be better. It was a powerful feeling throughout that entire community. We grieve Ashely, and my thanks to you Scottie and to you Josie for sharing her and for sharing her spirit with all of Alaska.

It is hard, and when it is hard we must be inspired by the resilience of Alaskans, whether you are in Kotzebue or in Kake, around the state we are inspired and we go to work.

So we work. We work to find the resources – the Department of Justice just announced nearly $18 million to Alaska under the Tribal Consolidated Grant Solicitation and for the first time have a federally funded Alaska Native Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Senator Sullivan with leading on initiatives like the POWER Act that promote pro bono legal services to survivors.

We work on the reauthorization of VAWA, so important in our state and around the country. And we work across the aisle on legislation to help Community Health aides to collect forensic samples.

So we are working, and we are working on programs that we know will do some good but they alone do not address the heart of the problem.  The problem that indigenous women have a fundamental human right to live without fear of assault in their lifetime.  That’s a fundamental right that they should not be living in fear. Programs can’t help us accomplish that, but we as communities, we as families, we as individuals coming together, we can accomplish that.  And we can change this by being better people, watching out for one another. At the Youth and Elders earlier this week Wesley Aiken from Utqiagvik had a strong message. It was pretty simple. He said it’s all about respect. It’s about respect for self and for one other. What I heard at Elders and Youth was a community pulling from the past – an awakening through language and dance – but coming from the past to heal and to reinvigorate Alaska and Alaskans. And I see that everywhere as I travel across Alaska. The past connecting with the future.

Think about that, think about all that we are seeing. Chris Liu with his Yupik speaking app, wow.  Gloria O’Neill and everything she is doing with the “Fab Lab” at Cook Inlet Tribal Council, students combining the latest and greatest technology with traditional concepts in innovative design and learning to lead technological revolutions. And that’s happening right here by so many of you.

Think about the leadership that we are seeing with energy innovation in our state.  Down in Kake, the Gunnuk Creek hydro project will displace more than 5.5 million gallons of diesel over its lifetime. And that simply would not have happened without Jodi Mitchell and the Inside Passage Electric Cooperative – or the Renewable Energy Fund so Lyman Hoffman needs to be paying attention there. He’s been such an advocate for it. But working along with the Rural Utilities Service, they have made a difference going forward for that community.

The Office of Indian Energy, many of you now, has been so involved


This year alone, will help Stebbins and St. Michael acquire a new wind turbine. Newtok will receive a heat recovery system. Out in the Pribilof Islands the Aleut Community will replace and upgrade their refrigeration and display cases. And the Unalakleet Native Corporation will upgrade their transmission lines and wind-diesel microgrid.

We are seeing examples of innovation in energy literally all over the map. From Kokhanok, in Galena, in Tuntutuliak, Ambler. Out in Hooper Bay, Koliganek, Shageluk, Mountain Village, and Circle. In Holy Cross, Nushagek –it’s all over. It’s so exciting.

That’s the beauty of Alaska. The geography, the people, the resources – everything is so diverse. Wherever you go, the solutions are going to be a little bit different depending on where you are.

And that’s another reason why it is so important we bring people to your communities, to see your challenges, and that you are able to share your voice.

Think about those there at AFN who have been sharing their voice, who have been speaking up for you, with you. Nelson Angapak, the number of times that he has testified before Congress, the number of times he has led on Alaska Native veteran issues. I was very proud to be able to move Senator Sullivan’s bill providing land allotments for Alaska Native Vietnam veterans through the Energy Committee. We did that a couple weeks ago. We should all be thanking Senator Sullivan and Nelson for their tireless, tireless advocacy on this.  As we’re continuing to make progress on ANCSA improvements, to make sure the federal government fulfills its promises after almost close to 50 years here.

But think about some of the other leaders in your midst there who have done so much in sharing and advancing interests. Mary Peltola, she shared with the Indian Affairs Committee in Washington, DC the importance of subsistence and co-management of our fisheries on the Kuskokwin. Karen Linnel has been delivering the same message on fish and game in the Ahtna region. And because of their work, and the determination of leaders like Michelle Anderson, we are investing in co-management and cooperative management projects across Alaska. I think we recognize, we know, the challenges to subsistence. And so whether those are federal decisions, state policies, or the impact of climate change these innovative collaborative, these efforts are what is needed to support subsistence and to help your traditional way of life.

Others that have been leading –Chris Kolerok and Melanie Bahnke. This summer, at their urging and with my friend Megan Alvanna Stimpfle, they urged us to bring the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to Savoonga, Alaska. Think about that, a delegation from Washington, DC out on St. Lawrence Island focused on housing. We saw it up front and very personal. They saw, they saw that overcrowded housing is just another word for “homelessness.” Children sleeping in corners, sleeping on the floor, on piles of clothing or not sleeping at all because it is someone else’s turn to stay awake. Brianne, the Savoonga clinic manager reminded us that when one person is sick in the family, so is everyone else. That illnesses are compounded when extended families occupy a housing unit that is intended for just one family.

I think it is a testament to Native ways of caring that families take in relatives and community members who perhaps may have few options. That is one of the concerns that I have when we look to the recent decision from the Texas federal court that held the Indian Child Welfare Act, ICWA, was unconstitutional. If it is sustained on appeal it will undermine everything that we have been working on for decades to keep our Native families together. I think no one perhaps knows this more personally than Congressman Young, for whom preservation of ICWA is personal. ICWA may be the single most significant piece of Indian legislation that Congress has passed. So know that we are not going down without a fight on this. I am in this with you. And we will work to ensure that our Native families remain together.

But for families to be together and to be strong, you must have better housing, you just must. So we have appropriated additional money to support Indian Housing but it was outside the Block Grant. The good news is that the Congress is really starting to recognize the issue, but we have to keep working together for funding for the Block Grant and to ensure that what we saw in Savoonga was the past and that we are moving towards a much better future.

But I will say, that while what I saw in Savoonga was so important, what I heard in Savoonga was powerful. And one voice in particular stood out for me, and that is the voice of Jacob Iya. Jacob is a high school senior in Savoonga. Jacob was telling us how his community has learned to live with what they have, just as their ancestors did before them and he said: “as we all look to the path ahead of us, we shall look not with negativity or frustration. But with hope and happiness.”

Jacob’s words truly speak to the resilience of Native people to overcome what may seem to be a never ending series of challenges. In Jacob’s words I hear all of your stories, all of your voices, your wisdom, and your heart. He describes the essence of how you approach strengthening your communities, how you work with me, with your delegation, for Alaska. Know that I carry your voices with me every day – whether I’m advocating for Alaska in Washington, DC or on the global stage in places like Iceland. And know that I am honored by it. I am honored and humbled by your trust.

And when it gets dark and when the division in our country and the negativity begin to get me down, or when the challenges seem insurmountable, I think of how you pull from the past to reinvigorate the present, and how you lead toward a better future both for Alaska and for our world.

I thank you so very much. Quayana. Gunalcheesh. God Bless you all, thank you.