SPEECH: Alaska Federation of Natives Convention 2019

Good morning!

So, I'd like to thank the Tanana Dene (deh-neh), on whose land I am speaking this morning.


So how did I do? I’ve been practicing how to say, ‘how are all of you,’ in Athabascan. I had considerable coaching. My notes here say you pronounce it as: d as in "dog", o as in "dog" , w like "oo" in "book" , kh like a heavy "k" , t' like saying t while holding your breath, a as in "cat"  --- How in the world am I supposed to put all that together? So last night at Quyana, I was asking my friends and I got my coaching and now Do'wkht'a is so much easier. I’m waiting for the apps, to help people like me. And they’re coming!

I’m so happy to be with you. I’m so happy to be at AFN. I’m happy to be in Fairbanks. I went to high school here and this is just a place where I feel at home. And I don’t know, I feel like when we’re in Fairbanks it just feels like we’re all a little bit closer. This is really a chance to reconnect. A chance to tell stories. Boy, we laughed last night at Quyana. Talking to different people who said, ‘I’m from this village’ or ‘I’m from that village,’ ‘Well I’m your sister,’ or ‘I’m your uncle.’ We talk. We talk about the challenges that we all face. The challenges that move us to change to chart new paths for the future and to remember those that are no longer with us, as you are doing each morning at the convention here, to reflect on their lessons, and to deliver their leadership to the next generation.

Selena Everson who is no longer with us, who left us earlier this year, has a very, very special place in my heart. I was humbled- truly humbled- when she invited me to be adopted into the Desheetan clan and she honored me with the name Aanshawatkee and it is truly to this day, perhaps, the most precious gift that I have ever been honored to receive, was the gift of the name, Lady of the Land, Aanshawatkee. So I remember her today.

I remember Howard Luke today. He was also one of those great leaders who left us just recently. And whether at his camp on the Chena River or on the trail, he was a special leader whose true kindness, his gentleness and support for others helped them overcome adversity and really helped them to find their own stories.

So there’s been so many stories that I’ve been part of that you have shared with me over this past year and the many, many lessons that I have learned. And I hear the stories. I see so much. I feel a lot of this. I recall the visit that I made earlier in the fall, or actually towards the end of the summer. I was out in Wales and I was riding with Mayor Oxereok on the back of his four-wheeler and we were bumping and heaving and moving all around as he’s talking to me about what they’re seeing in Wales with the coastal erosion. But I remember that trip and that discussion in kind of the context of being bumped all over the place. I loved that part of it. 

But I’ve been able to see, you have helped me see, firsthand how the climate continues to change – and it’s changing faster here than ever.  We are all seeing the impact on our fish, on our birds. The animals. Your food. This summer we saw some pretty extraordinary things when pallets of fans were being loaded onto the jet to go into Kotzebue. 

So many of us saw and tasted the choke from the smoke that was on the Kenai Peninsula, out and around Willow. I was getting reports from folks out in Aniak and Red Devil of the same with all of the smoke that we saw from the wildfires that are impacting our state.

I was down in Southeast and I was picking berries that were just shriveled because we hadn’t seen the rain. And I spent time trying to explain to federal regulators what a drought looks like in a rainforest. Some unprecedented changes that we’re seeing.

But I’ve also heard other stories, as well. I’ve heard Albertina Charles in Newtok describing – in Yup’ik – translated to me – her happiness. There was some anticipation, a little bit of anxiety about the change, but I think happiness about moving to the new townsite there at Metarvik.  It was her late husband Larry Charles who was so instrumental in Newtok’s quest to move. He came along with many village leaders over the course of years. But they made several trips to Washington, DC to advocate for this move, meeting with Congressman Young, meeting with Senator Stevens, and myself, beginning as early as the early 2000s. 

But what I heard from Albertina out there in Newtok, was really a description of a fresh start. A chance to be in a place where the children won’t get sick because there will finally be clean water. There will be a landfill for the garbage.  And that’s a milestone that we are still working to achieve in far, far, far too many other villages.

So when we bring these conversations and these stories back to where we are here in the Carlson center, thinking about this year’s theme – Good Government, Alaska Driven – there’s been a lot reported about that theme and what it means. But as I have been thinking that I’ve been thinking a lot about Newtok.  Because what we’re seeing, the hope we are seeing for the people of Newtok, was driven from within. It was driven by Alaskans, it was not driven by those on the outside.  It came because the community rolled up its sleeves and worked together to gather resources to move the village.  It came with persistence, persistence that’s driven by the daily reminder that time was not on their side, so inaction was not an option.  They worked with the federal delegation and agencies to find some grants here and there. They worked with our military to help with the relocation as a training opportunity. They basically collaborated with anyone they could find.  And that’s really demonstrating the greatness of Alaska that I love, where people come together, they work together, they get creative and collaborate to achieve what many would say is impossible.

We all know the story of Newtok is not perfect. There’s been challenges. They’ve had setbacks and disagreements. These are bumps in the road that come with change and with life anywhere.  But the community stuck with it and just last week, ten kids had their first day of school in Metarvik. It is really, really good.

It’s also good that this year’s theme – Good Government, Alaska Driven – is going to be carried on as next year’s theme as well, so that you’re going to be focused on Alaska Decided. And we all know that when you all in this room come together and decide, you can make change. And whether that’s voting, I’ve certainly seen the impact and that positive result from Alaska Decided, we know that you’re making a difference there.

But I think this notion that you’re carrying one theme over is important because overcoming challenges takes time. And like the people of Newtok know, it takes perseverance and sometimes one year is just not enough.  That is why we must maintain it we must focus on it for good of Alaska and for the good government to be really Alaska driven, we all must engage. We all have to engage and we have to do it even when the conversations are uncomfortable.

I think we all know that for far too long it has been uncomfortable, in fact it’s been almost put off limits, to talk about the darkness of violence in our homes and communities. And then what is felt and seen is kept hidden. Crimes are protected and victims are left to feel forgotten, denied, and invisible. And this cannot continue. This cannot be tolerated.

We had a roundtable several weeks back focused on Murdered and Missing Women here in Alaska. We had good leaders from around the state gathered together to focus specifically on this issue. And Alberta Unok reminded us that, like the Forget-Me-Not, our state flower, we should never forget the many cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls in our state. 

I have a little bracelet. You can’t see this from where you are but I can feel this. This is a little beaded bracelet made by Megan Williams. And her mom, Sharon Williams, gave it to me when I was in Napaskiak with Attorney General Barr earlier this summer. She gave one to me and she gave one to Attorney General Barr and I’ve had it on my wrist since that trip. And it reminds me every day to make sure that every single Alaskan woman is safe in her home and while she’s walking down the street. So we’ve got work to do. We’ve got lots of work to do.

On the legislative front with Savanna’s Act, Not Invisible, and the tribal provisions in VAWA. I have made the issue of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women an issue that must be addressed from a comprehensive view and approach.  For the first time, we are putting real dollars on the table in the Appropriations bill- the Interior Appropriations bill- to prioritize the Missing and Murdered through initiatives to increase funding for cold cases, rape kits, and other resources. But we are calling it out. We aren’t just putting a little line item where we are putting a plus-up. We’re saying, ‘We want to understand because we will not accept what we has happened for far too long. We need to address this, we need to name it, and we need to end it.’ And I think we are making some headway. We are starting to see a difference.

To finally see the arraignment for Sophie Sergie’s killing gives me just a moment’s breath.  And the next moment my breath is taken from me again when we learn about the brutal murder of a young woman in an Anchorage hotel room.  And so I grab my wrist and I kind of wiggle that little beaded bracelet from that little girl in Napaskiak, and say, ‘we gotta get to work.’

We all have to come together to confront the intergenerational impacts of sexual assault and abuse in our state and what more must be done to address public safety in Alaska.

We can start by refining and advancing some of the creative concepts like the special pilot that Don Young is leading with in the House version of VAWA.  This week I introduced a new version that builds on Congressman Young’s leadership. In it, we empower tribes to exercise special domestic violence jurisdiction on a pilot basis, allowing villages to assume local control over local public safety matters. Because we know that jurisdictional issues should not deny safety or justice.

So I’m going to keep working on legislation to provide victims services to tribes through the SURVIVE Act. We provide access to trauma informed care through legislation that we refer to as the Rise from Trauma Act. We combat trafficking through Not Invisible. And we are going to finish the work Heidi Heitkamp and I started to bring attention to the Missing and Murdered crisis by passing Savanna’s Act!  We’re going to get that one done. But we also have to be very open about why we need such legislation in the first place, and to talk openly about it. I think we saw this at the opening of this convention when Simon Friday proclaimed these words. He said, ‘Let the darkness of domestic violence fall with the rise of the next generation of young men.”

Yes! That’s exactly where we need to go.

I think we recognize that good government can only drive so much change.  As Simon said, the rest must come from all of us, and how we talk about it is perhaps just as important as what we talk about.  And that’s why what you had at the beginning of this week with Elders and Youth is so important.  Language is truly your superpower.  And we feel that, we see it, we hear it, we live it. Together, through programs like ANEP, immersion schools, and other initiatives we have fostered change.  But that change is driven by your leadership.  It is your leadership that is making this happen.

It is driven by people like Rosita Worl.  Rosita is always reminding me of my adopted name- to connect myself. Her vision to bring the traditional languages and Native teachers into the schools can be transformative.  It is driven by the young people who are embracing traditional languages. I mentioned one of these days, we’ll see the app. And they’re working on the apps as we speak. But they’re bringing traditional ways to modern technologies in places like CITC’s Fab Lab that Gloria O’Neil has worked so hard on.  It is driven by the Sealion Corporation, which is one step closer to opening the first tribally-run public charter school in Alaska. It’s driven by the Knik Tribe and Chugachmuit who won federal grants to help them create Tribal Education Departments so that they can operate federal education programs. So this is all happening because it’s driven by you.

Julie Kitka. We all know what Julie can drive with her leadership. She’s started this Alaska Day in Washington D.C. and her focus was to bring the military and the Alaska Native Community together to talk about national security and the Arctic. And when it first kicked off, Julie, in fairness I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to go. But what we have seen with her leadership – and the leadership of so many—the leadership of General O’Shaugnessy, Lt. General Bussiere and General Brown – we are seeing a relationship and a dialogue flourish in a way that is not only healing here in the state but it’s bringing attention to the Arctic at the same time that it is strengthening our national security. So it is a coalescing of so much coming together in such an important space.

When people of different backgrounds come together to share their experiences I think remarkable things can happen.  I saw it myself when I was in Bethel this spring, for the Student Government conference.  It’s about 350 student leaders from all across the state and they come together for this event, it’s called AASG. It’s a learning, sharing, growing experience. But what I saw was that these young people are forging ties of understanding that will take all of us, all of Alaska into the future.  At AASG, what you have is urban and rural kids working together to understand and to respect the diversity of where each comes from—not just geographically, but culturally and emotionally.  It was important to see and to feel that.

I have such an incredible opportunity. I am really blessed because I get to visit so many of you in your communities, in your homes, in places like Arctic Village, Brevig Mission, Teller, Kwigillingok, and Kongiganak.  Sometimes, I try to get there, like Eek and Tyonek, and get weathered out. I’ve been weathered out of Eek now twice, but I’m not giving up. But your willingness to come together, to welcome people, and to share with us-- those who are not a part of your community—to share brings about better understanding and the need to foster good government. 

I had a great welcome towards the end of the summer. I had a series of meetings and a townhall with the good people of the Ahtna region. And I had been out hunting for a week. And I knew how long it was going to take me to get from Delta down to the Glennallen area and I was running really tight, and I knew people were waiting for me. And I had been out in the woods hunting for a week, so I don’t need to tell you what I looked and smelled like. And I went in and I apologized to Ken Johns and said, ‘Look Ken, I haven’t had a chance to clean up or anything,’ and he gave me a big ole’ hug and let me know that the campfire, bug dope, and camp smell was just fine, I smelled just like everybody else because they’d just come in from moose hunting!

But it was one of those reminders to me, one of those reminders of the openness and the genuineness of ‘we want your company,’ and ‘we want to share with you.’ I want to thank Ken and thank Michelle and all those who gathered there for that meeting and waited for me for a little bit longer, because you were then able to help share with me what you all deal with in the fall when Urban Alaska decends on your region for hunting. So seeing that really helps build understanding. 

And to take it back to AASG, that’s why it’s so important. That’s why the visit we had by Attorney General Barr was so effective.  I was with the Attorney General when he went to Bethel and Napaskiak.  Thank you, Vivian, for extending the invitation directly to him.  But I was not only able to hear his interaction with folks, to listen and to engage but you could see how he was connecting with people. How he was beginning to understand not just what he had been walked through with the statistics but he was beginning to feel. And when you feel, that’s where we make the connections. And we have seen him not only follow up, but continue to follow up since he went back to Washington. To continue to be engaged. We saw that commitment from the Department of Justice. That commitment was certainly ratified on Thursday when Attorney General Barr announced the significant grants that are coming to Alaska to help us with rural public safety issues. So these connections that we make that you share with your story, this is how we make that change. And when I think back to that walk around through Napaskiak, I had an opportunity to visit with two young men who were Tribal Police Officers. And when I say they are young—they are young. They had been on the job for just shy of a couple months and had little to no training.  And I asked one of the young men, ‘how do you deal with people in a difficult, perhaps threatening situation when you don’t have training or protection.’ And what he told me was, this 19 or 20 year old guy, was, ‘I have to use my words.’  These are real leaders. Real leaders who deserve our respect and our help.

I think of Annie Reed in Kiana.  She’s a grandmother and a Village Public Safety Officer – what Annie does, every day, for her community is remarkable.  Annie is never off duty.  When calls for help come into Kiana they don’t get transferred to 911 in Kotzebue – they go to Annie’s cellphone.  Kiana is lucky to have someone like Annie.  But there are so many situations- 1 in 3 communities in Alaska don’t have any law enforcement.  And while Annie is there for the community we all need to think about how we are there for them.

I can use my position and my words to work with the Attorney General. I can use my words with leaders like Tara Sweeney who I shared dinner with last night. We love what Tara is doing for all of us in Alaska and around the country. But we can use our words to bring resources, to support training, and to provide new tools.  But we also need to lift up and support law enforcement in our communities.  They have a tough job and are too often caught in between families and friends.  And no amount of training will make a difference if there is constant turnover.  We don’t just need to work on just on recruiting, equipping, and training VPSOs and Tribal Police – we also need to work on how we retain them. So besides the respect and support they deserve for tackling a tough job, that also means housing in so many places. So we have much work to do.

But we’ve got good leaders. I appreciate the fact that you recognize my friend Lyman Hoffman for his years of service. I saw him last night as he was ending his day and I congratulated him on his award and he said, ‘yeah I kind of felt like a rock star walking around with everyone congratulating me,’ but he’s earned it. He’s absolutely earned it. And I was pleased and thankful to hear Bryce talk about the role the Bush Caucus continues to play in the state legislature. 

On the federal side things have seemed a little bit slow Congress on the legislative front.  But we’re still working it, we’re still pushing out priorities and our new initiatives.

At the start of the year, the President signed into law a package I put together containing more than 120 lands bills.  Included within it was a provision that Nelson Angapak championed and Senator Sullivan carried to allow Alaska Natives who served in the Vietnam War, and missed out on their land allotment as a result, to go back and apply for one. And as we heard earlier this morning, we certainly didn’t get everything we wanted, but it’s a first step to curing a grave injustice and your work to help implement it will be so very, very important.  

We’re also working right now on the Tribal Energy Reauthorization Act, which will help lower the high cost of energy in so many of our communities.  In it we reauthorize the Office of Indian Energy. There were a couple of communities, Igiugig, Kwethluk, and Togiak, which just received some grants from the Office of Indian Energy. There have been some shortcomings within OIE, and we know that. And it’s made it harder for certain Alaska projects to qualify.  So we need to address that. We need to increase its authorization level because we know that the need is significant and great. 

Good things are happening in our communities.  Native Corporations are taking steps to bring investment home. I think we should all be congratulating Bristol Bay Native Corporation for the investment it made in Pacific cod and the establishment of Bristol Bay Seafood Investments.  This is a big deal and a big investment in Alaska. It truly, as they say, bringing it home.

We see Coastal Villages creating new pathways to finance housing and innovating new ways to bring about housing, including building tiny homes. We see Molly of Denali. It’s inspiring because it’s not just Alaskans here at home that are learning but it is teaching young people across our country.  Good Government can be Alaska driven because while we see many of our young leaders who leave their homes temporarily to gather the skills they need, they are ultimately bringing them back home to build up and to invigorate their communities. 

I get to see that potential every summer in my high school intern program. I have been blessed to host over 50 young interns who have just graduated high school who from rural Alaska. They have come from places like Hughes, Port Alsworth, Scammon Bay, Tuluksak and Klawock. I was here at Quyana last night and who do I see but Edith Spear from Utquiavik who was with me in Washington D.C> this summer. These interns get a glimpse of how it works from the inside.  They see how we wrestle with these decisions, the work that goes into things and I’m hopeful that they take that experience with them wherever they go.

I know the fact that I take my time, I do my homework, I do the reading, I listen to Alaskans, and truly deliberate hard before casting a vote, because my vote is important and it’s important to you. But I know sometimes my process frustrates a lot of people.  But response back is tough problems take time, they take some thought, and often times they take some collaboration to resolve.  Easy answers and no shortcut or substitute for hard work.   

Know that I continue every day to be humbled by the trust you have placed in me.  I carry it with me every day. And when I am confronted with another reporter that sticks a recorder in my face and demands a quick answer, or I’m hammered by a political group to take a stand, or just people that are bullies – I think of Alaskans like you. Like Carol Seppilu or the Hoogendorn brothers.  Alaskans who put the time and preparation in to go the distance – whether it’s cross country running or summiting the highest peaks – and I just stiffen my spine, I put my head down, and go to work. I go to work just like you do every day. It may be in a different location but we do it together and we do it in a way that makes a difference.

Just like our friend Pete Kaiser did this year during the Iditarod.  Pete is my hero – not because he won the Iditarod –and I love the Iditarod- though that is always amazing – but because Pete’s hard work and perseverance truly represents the best of what is happening in Alaska.

So I have asked that a special recognition and a tribute be included as a part of the United States Senate Congressional Record. And I want you to help me present him with this Congressional Record and recognize his achievement for all Alaska.  Please join me in recognizing Pete Kaiser!