SPEECH: Alaska Federation of Natives

Over the past year we have had the pleasure of meeting in places like St Mary’s, Togiak, New Stu,  Kwig and Point Hope. Thank you for inviting me into your homes. Thank you sharing your traditional foods with me. Thank you for sharing with me the most personal details of your lives.

Julie, Ana and Tara, I rely on your advice and counsel to keep me plugged in while I’m back in Washington. And I rely on a great many others in this room. You know who you are. But I want everyone – and especially those who are watching on cable and on the Internet to know something: Our Native leadership is incredible.  They’re rock stars in my book. And I’m not alone.

If you ask Lower 48 tribal leaders what they think about Alaska, they will tell you: they think your business sense and track record developing people is the model for all of Indian Country.

They admire our scholarship programs. They admire the way we have embraced tribal self-governance. And they admire our success in government contracting through the 8(a) program.

On Thursday, the Defense Logistics Agency announced that Ogloonik, the village corporation for Wainwright, has won its Business Alliance Award for Outstanding Readiness Support. Recognition like this tends to make our friends in the Lower 48 downright envious.

Last week, the annual list of the top 49 Alaska companies came out. Nineteen of the Top 49 Alaska businesses are Native corporations. Together these 19 Native Corporations account for 11.8 billion dollars in gross revenue and have created almost 17,000 Alaska jobs.

Now that list doesn’t even begin to count the contributions of the tribes, the regional tribal organizations, the health corporations and the housing authorities.

Just look at the leadership coming from the healthcare providers. We all know what a mess the VA has become. Native health can recruit doctors to work in Barrow, Bethel, and Nome. Yet the VA can’t recruit a single doctor to work fulltime in Wasilla. So they’ve turned to Southcentral Foundation to fill the gap. A huge thank you to Katherine Gottlieb and her team for taking the Mat-Su veterans into their network. Without you – they would have to make that long drive then wait in line for an appointment in Anchorage. And to all other the other health corporations that are opening their doors to our veterans – thank you.

There’s one more thing we have that the Lower 48 doesn’t: the Alaska Federation of Natives. This convention is the leading policy forum for our Native people here in Alaska and around the nation.   Important people come here from our Nation’s Capital and Indian Country – not only to share outside views but to learn first-hand from our successes. That reflects the respect and reputation that AFN has earned over the decades.  Be proud of this. Very proud

AFN week is about renewal: Spiritual renewal. Cultural renewal. Political renewal. We may arrive here travel weary but we leave with newfound energy and purpose to our work. To rise as one.

And it is a good thing we do. The challenge to our traditional cultures from our modern world never gets any easier. Each year, when I visit fish camps or when I witness preparations for the spring whale hunt I am moved by the beauty of traditional cultures.

As I travel around and listen to people talk about what bothers them, I hear three issues repeatedly: Safety, subsistence and suicide. In a few minutes you will begin debating resolutions on dozens of subjects. But if what I have to say resonates with you, I hope that you will set AFN on a course toward making real change in each of these three areas.

Safety. It seems that each year we leave AFN with a single memory more powerful than all of the others. The memory that moves us to action. Last year it was the Tanana 4-H kids who said “enough is enough” about the drugs, alcohol and violence in their communities.

They also had enough of adults who offer no leadership. Our youth are looking for adults to be role models and culture bearers.  I’m not just hearing this in Tanana, but in other villages around the state like Little Diomede and Bethel. We can’t let our kids down.

The courage, strength and maturity demonstrated by the Tanana kids awakened us and we left AFN with a real belief that this would be the year we would see real progress in community safety.

It didn’t happen as quickly as we would have liked, unfortunately. 2014 has been one of the roughest years in memory. In May, VPSO Thomas Madole’s was honored at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial for his bravery and sacrifice in trying to keep the people of Manakotak safe. Weeks later, two Troopers were shot to death in Tanana while responding to assist the VPSO. Julie Roberts-Hyslop spoke with grace and eloquence about this tragedy at the Elders and Youth Convention earlier this week.   

And just a few weeks ago in Shagaluk a double homicide. A double homicide. Making things worse: there was no VPSO in Shageluk. The Troopers were delayed what seemed forever by the weather. 

We owe the fallen better than this.  We owe one another better than this.  Every village deserves a full time public safety presence.  Whether that’s a VPSO, a tribal police officer, a village police officer, or a Trooper – every village should have a full time police presence.    

We used to say if only we had the funding, we could do something about it.  But now we do have the funding. There’s funding out there for 121 VPSOs but only 86 people have stepped forward to take the job.

That’s shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the day-to-day danger.  The toughest police beat in America is the one you walk alone, unarmed, with backup hours or days away by boat or plane. We can lessen that risk by providing VPSOs with backup in the community. I’m working to supplement state funding with federal dollars so we can get additional VPSOs and Tribal Police Officers into every village that wants them. We also need to strengthen our tribal courts and increase the presence of behavioral health aides in the villages.

But increasing the number of first responders alone doesn’t make a community safer. First responders will be the first to tell you that partnerships with the community are key to their effectiveness.

We need peacekeeping models in all of our communities that are culturally sensitive to Native people– in urban communities as well as rural communities. I believe Alaska can be a leader in how to provide culturally sensitive protection to our Native people.  And we can start by ensuring there is justice for the Fairbanks Four.

We criticize the state for not developing more resources for rural safety. But the federal government is guilty as well. The Bureau of Indian Affairs prefers not to fund tribal court development in Alaska because we are a “PL 280” state. I asked the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs if BIA would change the policy to help us expand our tribal courts. Assistant Secretary Washburn could do that but he would agree only to study the matter.  I don’t think there is anything to study. Our tribes need to be given the reseources to do their jobs. The BIA needs to stop being part of the problem and get on top of the solution.

In my travels around the state I am left with a strong impression of what you are looking for in a public safety system. A system that is administered by local people. A system that emphasizes healing and rehabilitation. One that recognizes that the population of Alaska Native people in our prisons is unacceptably high. A preventive system that motivates young people away from drugs and alcohol and violence. One that promotes jobs and families – not a life on the edge of society.

That’s one way we begin to address the suicide epidemic. Kotlik, Emmonak, Pilot Station – suicides in each of these communities in the last couple of weeks.  The tragedies continue.

In the next year I will work with you on the design of a comprehensive model to sustain our rural communities. We cannot think of public safety in isolation. Alcohol and drug abuse control. Law enforcement and courts. Behavioral health and rehabilitation. These are only part of the solution. Let’s not lose sight of the objective– our goal is healthy Native families and sustainable Native communities. Improvements in public safety are a means toward that end. But we also need to work on housing… schools… jobs… and a future for the kids. We need to develop affordable, locally generated energy.

We pay a high price for diesel in rural Alaska. And I’m not just talking about the fuel bill. I’m talking about the anxiety that sets in when people have to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families. In rural Alaska we know that energy insecurity and food insecurity go hand in hand.

AFN has been pushing hard on food security for decades. We need to push equally hard on ending energy insecurity. I’m so proud of the work that’s being done on the local level to get our communities off diesel and on to sustainable renewable energy. Igiugig is demonstrating that river currents can provide energy. In Kwig wind turbines are powering thermal stoves. In Southeast wood pellets and biofuel and in the Nome area geothermal wells and turbines.  We have so very far to go but these are exciting examples of what can happen when we resolve to take control of our energy future.

And of course access to subsistence resources remains at the top of our agenda.  Without meaningful access to subsistence rural Alaska will cease to exist. It’s that simple.

Infighting about subsistence has been going on for 25 years now and has not helped to resolve anything. That’s why I have long supported a constitutional amendment to acknowledge and support the unique subsistence characteristics of rural Alaska. 

While some leaders don’t get it – I think the people of Alaska do understand that rural subsistence is deserving of constitutional protection.

They understand that subsistence, practiced in the customary and traditional way, is about so much more than food security. Not only are you feeding your body and your families, but also your soul and spirit in a deep connection to your land and water.  Subsistence is a family value: a way of helping the young understand who they are. A tie that binds multiple generations. And subsistence promotes community. It is not about amassing material wealth but about sharing.

Nowhere is this more evident than at fish camps.  Declining Chinook runs on the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers have caused real hardships for so many communities and for so many people.  It has disrupted fish camps and prevented you from getting your fish for the winter.

I am pleased that the federal fish disaster funding that I fought so hard for back in Washington will be used to improve management on the rivers.  These funds will support efforts to build local capacity and to make communities more involved in the management process.  It will be important to ensure that local and traditional knowledge is incorporated into the management of the rivers – real use of your knowledge to help bring the Kings back!

I am somewhat skeptical about yesterday’s announcement about a federal co-management pilot program for the Kuskokwim.  There are no details, and all I was told was that it will take 18 months to figure out a process, it is not clear that is even agreement on how they co-management is defined.  We need quicker action and I am committed to working with local communities and regional leaders to make progress this coming season.

Oftentimes those who call themselves conservatives find themselves opposed to you on subsistence. But what’s more conservative, traditional and family-oriented than customary and traditional subsistence?

Acknowledging rural subsistence in our State’s constitution is good for the mind, body and soul. And it’s good for fish and game management.

Until we regain control over subsistence in this state by enacting a constitutional amendment, we remain stuck with bureaucratic and unresponsive federal management. I am committed to reforming this system.

A year ago to this day, I sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture setting out three immediate steps to that reform. First, quit finding that traditional subsistence communities like Saxman are urban in nature simply because they reside in close proximity to larger cities. Second, add two public members to the Federal Subsistence Board to reduce the domination of federal bureaucrats. Three, defer to the findings of the Regional Advisory Councils on all matters related to subsistence especially customary and traditional use determinations. 

That letter went unanswered until yesterday when the federal officials proposed a process for reform. They didn’t promise reforms. They promised a process for reforms. I ask you, how many AFN conventions it should take for the federal government to achieve real reforms?        There’s one reform that I think can move on a much faster track and that is the rural community determination process. It was wrong in 2007 when the federal government determined Saxman to be urban, and it is still the wrong approach today.

I think I have a better solution. Let’s amend the law so that no community which has been determined rural retroactive to the start of ANILCA can be changed to urban unless Congress first votes to make them urban. This will protect traditional subsistence communities like Bethel and Kodiak which fear that the federal government will arbitrarily deny their federal subsistence protections.

We also need to think about reversing other arbitrary regulatory impediments to traditional rural subsistence. It has been handed down across the generations – be good to the land and the resources and they will sustain you. Yet overreaching federal rules and overbearing federal enforcers are turning traditional people into criminals for feeding their families. That has to stop.    

For decades we’ve talked about subsistence solely in terms of the often dysfunctional hunting and fishing regulatory schemes.  But there’s another problem that has been missing from the discussion. That is the health of subsistence foods themselves.

Throughout rural Alaska people are asking whether the high rates of cancer in the villages is linked to toxics in the food chain. If that’s the case we can thank the federal government.

he federal government has for far too long ignored the toxic legacy it has left throughout rural Alaska. This is unacceptable. We need to force the federal government to step up and spend the money to identify and clean up its messes. And I will fight with you to make that so. It’s not just a matter of health; it’s a matter of respect. Demand that respect from the federal government. Don’t request it – demand it!

And while we are on the subject of respect, I remind everyone that the federal government took the cultural lands of the Tlingit and Haida people for the Tongass National Forest. It is an injustice to this day that Sealaska has not yet received what ANCSA promised. I have been pursuing legislation to make that so. And after six years intense negotiations we are darn close to the finish line. We need to pass this bill this year.

There’s another injustice that’s hanging out there. The Aleut people of King Cove want a road through the Izembek Refuge. They’ve wanted that road for decades. I got legislation in Congress authorizing the road but the Interior Department continues to block it. We also must demand that the federal government respect the desire of King Cove for safe access to the airport at Cold Bay.

Let’s wrap our conversation up with some thoughts about the election. These are my thoughts about Ballot Measure #2, the marijuana initiative.

It is bad for public health. It is bad for public safety. And it couldn’t come at a worse time for rural Alaska. There was a time when we worried mostly about the dangers of alcohol. But now meth and heroin are making their way into the villages as well. Legalizing the sale of marijuana for recreational uses only adds to the challenge facing rural Alaska. I am voting No on 2. And I admire the tough line our Native community is taking in opposition.

I’m not going to talk about candidates this morning but I do want to talk about the power of the Native vote. If you want respect in the political process you do have to go out and vote. Whoever you support you need to get out and vote.

At this convention AFN is honoring the Native American Rights Fund attorneys for their many recent court victories, including one that ensures that Native language speakers have access to the ballot box.

Every Alaskan deserves a meaningful chance to vote. I congratulate NARF on this victory and I pledge to work legislatively with you on Voting Rights Act improvements in the coming year to further improve voting access for Native communities nationwide.

[I also want to say a few words about the need to come together after the election. In less than two weeks this election will be over, but the critical issues like public safety, subsistence and suicide will still be there for us to address as a community.  Friends need to remember their friendships, move beyond a vote, and resist giving their neighbor the stink eye.  Let’s all work together to make substantial improvement on these tough issues.]

I leave you today with a sense of optimism and anticipation. If there is a change in control of the Senate I will chair the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the major Indian programs – especially the Indian Health Service. Through my work as the ranking member on this subcommittee we have made real progress on funding the Alaska Native health system and staffing new clinics around the state.                  

I’m proud to be among that small handful of Senators and Congressman who devotes substantial attention to Native American issues. I think Indian Country is looking forward to having a chair who puts the Indian programs first and it’s exciting to think what might happen if I fill that role.