SPEECH: Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN)

Chin’an. (Hello)

Ahn Sho-Aht-Key, You-Haht Do-Ah Saw-Kooh. My name is Aan Shaawak’i. (meaning ‘Lady of the Land')

Yea-Na Ay-Yah-Haht. I am of the Raven moiety.

Day-Shee-than Nah-Haht-Sit-Tee. I am of the Deisheetaan Clan.

As I practiced my pronunciation this morning, I recalled of Vivian Korthius to me yesterday that we know who we are and where we are from. Such important words.

Know that I derive so much strength from you as you share your values and your traditions with me. In a country that is more polarized than ever, I strive to reflect your values. To seek partnership because moving forward means moving together. That is the spirit with which I approached the debate to reform healthcare. Not from a commitment to the status quo, because reform is definitely needed, but from a commitment to the most vulnerable in our community, from a commitment to seeking bipartisan solutions and from a desire to lead the Senate back to a process that allows all stakeholders to work together on solutions. Thank you for your support and for working with me over the past few months. We will need to stay united and keep working together to ensure Alaskans have the access to affordable care they need and the quality of care they deserve.

While healthcare has been the issue dominating our days, it isn’t the issue defining our time. Our world is changing; socially, economically, ecologically and we all know climate change is at the head of that change. Confronting climate change and adapting to it will take leadership, partnership and attention to social justice if we are ever to find the strength to tackle the issue together.

I was in Iceland last week attending several Arctic conferences and there was a very distinguished, revered religious leader there. when speaking about climate change, said simple words that struck me;

“In order to change what we see, we need to change how we see it.”

I thought of those words when I listened to Chris Apassingok’s remarkable speech that he gave at Youth and Elder’s. And I have to tell you, we have to thank Chris, not just for his courage in the face of criticism, what he did was say, I will not be bullied or intimidated when my values and what I believe is being questioned. He stood up and he spoke out, what we should all be doing.

Chris showed courage in the face of criticism. What Chris also helped us with was to help us change how others may see our world here in Alaska. When he talked about the changes that he is seeing, about how retreating sea ice has moved hunters from the skin boats to aluminum boats, from sails to high-powered motors and how the distances people have to travel to subsist have increased –Chris put a powerful voice to what we see happening across our state and know is happening around the world.

Climate change is real. While our fellow Americans are coming to grips with the devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Utqiagvik was facing another fall storm that washed away land, undercut historic town sites, flooded lots, and imperiled the community’s drinking water. Sea ice previously protected our communities, but that ice is now hundreds of miles offshore for much of the year.

Utqiagvik is just a recent story among hundreds we have all seen and are seeing. Newtok, Kivalina, Shishmaref are the names that most make the news, but its also our Interior communities as well. Almost every village faces similar impacts – changing weather patterns, increased erosion, and changing migration patterns of the fish, game and other subsistence resources we depend upon. We see precious artifacts lost as melting permafrost and storm-caused erosion damage exposes sites containing important objects from thousands of years ago. Whether it is the increased cost of subsistence or erosion effecting access to basic needs like fresh water and sanitation, the impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on rural Alaska. Our challenge is to improve the resilience of our communities now, not wait for the disasters to come. And that starts by changing the way we view energy in our communities.

In a high cost state like ours, the first place to look is to use less energy through greater efficiency and we see examples everywhere. Hoonah is saving money after an energy audit led to lighting upgrades in the gym and harbor lights.

Craig has seen similar savings with lighting upgrades after a simple “walk through energy audit” of the Shaan Seet hotel. And over in Klawock, the school district is working with the Department of Energy to install a biomass boiler to heat the school. So the Klawock school will be able to spend more on student learning and less on the heating bill. And the community gains by using local wood products rather than buying fuel off island.

Villages like Kongiganak or Kwigillinok are another example. Their integration of wind, batteries and thermal stoves have not just cut electricity costs but cut heating costs in half for many of those homes. They have paved the way for others and shown how a small community, hundreds of miles from the nearest road system, can diversity from diesel.

Experts from around the world are looking to us to overcome the challenge of providing clean and inexpensive power in rural environments across the globe while improving local economies. Other arctic nations are looking to Alaska for examples. How well we respond? How well we lead?

Alaska communities are inspiring those working to restore places like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Kodiak’s use of a smart system that uses wind, hydro, batteries, and a flywheel to power its grid with almost 100% renewable energy has been highlighted as an example of how a resilient grid can be build. And remember, Kodiak is just eighty square miles bigger than Puerto Rico. A recently announced partnership between National Labs, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, Cordova Electric Cooperative and AVEC is also pioneering resilient microgrids. Cordova, in good Alaska fashion, strung together cooper telephone lines and some modems to build a smarter system. AVEC owns more individual wind farms than any coop in the United States and operates 50 microgrids.

Alaskans can lead the fight against climate change here at home and be a model for the rest of the world. I have long said Alaska can be the test bed for so much energy innovation. We have the expertise, knowledge and experience that matters and must be included in the policy process.

And it’s not just something or academic knowledge that we have. It is the traditional and local knowledge that sets us apart. But the challenge has been to ensure that Alaska Native voices are reflected across the federal government, that consulted has real meaning and that compacting or co-management mechanisms are workable. And we have struggled as some agencies have viewed consultation as merely a check the box exercise.

But we have been making progress –We received great news this week that the President has nominated Tara Sweeney to be the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior. Her voice has always been strong and this is great news—historic news—for Alaska. Having someone inside the Department, in a Senate Confirmed position, who understands not just how important consultation is, but what it means, will be a game changer. To have an Alaskan selected for this important position is an honor and we all need to find ways to support Tara in not only her nomination, but her work going forward.

We also should recognize the leadership of Nick Jackson, Roy Ewan, Eleanor Dementi and so many others who worked with us all these years as well as the Department of Interior to develop the first wildlife co-management Memorandum of Agreement in Alaska. The road has been too long, but this year we secured the funds to breathe life into the agreement between the Tribes and the Department and it is my hope that the Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission will pave the way for a more cooperative, inclusive approach to subsistence management in Alaska.

We need to keep building on that momentum. We are working on legislation to formalize ideas about how to include Indigenous People and traditional knowledge into policy that have been sprinkled in executive orders over the years. As we have all seen, executive orders can change, and it is time to move forward with solid legislation that anchors the inclusion of Indigenous People and traditional knowledge in law. We must ensure that the voices of the Native people are heard and respected. I’ve heard the concerns from the Bering Sea Elders about protecting land, water and animals. I’ve listened to young people this morning raise issues about education and suicide. How do we ensure that Native voices are at the table.

Although our proposed legislation will be geared towards the Arctic, I believe it can create a model for inclusion and the development of best practices that will serve as the foundation for even greater progress throughout the state.

Economic development and adapting to a changing climate does not mean turning away from traditional ways. The answer is integrating traditional ways with modern days as Chris and the transition from skin boats to aluminum boats. I was reminded about what I saw in Kaktovik when I was there in May. As many coastal communities, residents’ ice cellars are failing due to permafrost thaw.

The integration of technology used in the oil fields with traditional ways is a perfect example of what comes from working together. Rather than running expensive refrigerated containers the community partnered with industry on new technology to passively protect the permafrost. Coming together, to work together. As I was thinking about it, while my Tlingit was not very articulate, I’m reminded that I wouldn’t know how to know how to pronounce these if it were not for an App.

Integrating Traditional Knowledge isn’t about looking backward, it is a fundamental part of looking forward and that is why we will work to provide, in legislation, an official venue to inform, direct and infuse Arctic policy with traditional knowledge to validate our human reasons is Arctic policy. In the draft I have been developing with many of you, we will revisit the Arctic Research and Policy Act and add formal Commissions charged with instituting and integrating traditional knowledge. But I will not do it without you. That is why before we introduce this legislation, we will be working with you to refine it and develop it.

Those of you from Shungnak recently showed me they know what it takes to solve problems. I visited the upper Kobuk river communities in late August and was welcomed at the airports and riverbanks with banners held by the school kids, parents and elders. You made me feel like a rock star! In Shungnak, I was reminded by the students that whether it’s in school or in the community, problems are not solved alone. It’s a we. That together we make a difference.

We make a difference in the world by showing ways to bring renewable energy to remote communities and build resilient energy grids. We make a difference by working together to form innovative partnerships to enhance and transition our economies. And we make a difference by demonstrating how traditional knowledge enhances modern technology to find new ways to adapt to climate change.

Tackling climate change requires recognizing the transition we want, coming together to the table to make sure our ideas are integrated, and leading America and the world with the innovation we show every day in our communities across Alaska. It is with that strength in unity that we will succeed and leave our home here better, stronger and more resilient for the next generation. Thank you for your support, and for being there to lead with me. 

Related Issues: Alaska Natives & Rural Alaska