SPEECH: Remarks at the 2020 AFN Convention

Chin’an.  (Hello)

Ahn Sho-Aht-Key, You-Haht Do-Ah Saw-Kooh. 

Yea-Na Ay-Yah-Haht. 

Day-Shee-than Nah-Haht-Sit-Tee.

I try every year to speak a little bit more, but I shared with you, My name is Aan Shaawak’I, Lady of the Land. I am of the Raven moiety. I am of the Deisheetaan Clan, adopted.

And I’m proud to be with you all today.  Know that I missed you and I send virtual hugs back to all of you.

I want to start by acknowledging the indigenous lands of the Dena’ina peoples where I am speaking to you from and to Chief Aaron Leggett of the Eklutna tribe.  Chi’nan.

AFN truly is the gathering that I look forward most to each year.  It allows all of us – Native and non-Native – to come together.  We reconnect, we laugh, we share stories, we dance at Quyana, and take lots and lots pictures.  It really is where we renew friendships. 

And it is those shared values that get us through tough times, and 2020 is really a tough time.  Switching from in person to virtual, I wasn’t quite sure how AFN was going to work this year, but it has been amazing to see how it has come together with the speakers, all that has gone into it.  Julie, Ben, Nicole, and the whole AFN team, the leadership – you truly deserve our thanks for putting together a remarkable convention and virtual conversation. 

Really the whole week is a reminder of how much we can accomplish when we’re working together.  As Reverend Dr. Trimble Gilbert said at Elders and Youth at the beginning of the week, he said, “We cannot make anything grow when we fight each other.”  Those are important words to remember.

When I was in Sitka in February and I met with Paulette Moreno, she’s the President of Alaska Native Sisterhood. We visited at Paulette’s mother’s over tea she shared her concerns about the situation in Angoon.  They had not had ferry service for some period of time, the shelves in the store were empty and that weekend volunteers from ANS and ANB from throughout the community, Forest Service employees, they came together at the ANB Hall to fill food boxes that had come – donated food and supplies.  It was flown out to Angoon by Alaska Seaplanes, Wings of Alaska, it was people coming together to help.

And when the pandemic forced Head Start classes to close, leaders and staff from across the state found ways to keep food, formula, diapers and parenting support coming.  It was leaders like Deb Townbridge at Kawerak, Kristen Ramstad at RuralCAP and Katrina Nunemann at FNA.  We really saw that leadership manifest.

When Newtok lost power for three weeks and families lost thousands of pounds of food, food that they had collected, Tribal Administrator Andrew John jumped to action.  Between hunters and fishermen in the community, working with nonprofits like the Food Bank of Alaska, businesses like Meyers Farm and the Alaska Commercial Company, they found ways to refill those freezers.

The pandemic and what we’ve seen with the poor fish runs around the state have given many a laser focus on food security.  The high cost of food, the fact that in Alaska we import about 95 percent of our food, and of course the changing climate’s impact on the fish, game, and berries – our existing challenges have only been worsened by the pandemic.  

But, with innovation and team work we are seeing progress.  Building on AFN’s food security resolution that was passed in 2016, and good advice from folks like Melanie Banhke, Seth Kantner, Angela Peter, Marna Sanford, Rose Fosdick, and many more, the State of Alaska just recently received nearly $2 million to help individuals, tribes, churches, schools, and others grow, process, and store more local food – including subsistence foods – in our communities.  So, next month look for the Alaska Division of Agriculture to put out a request for applications.  That again was responsive to what we heard from many of you.

All across our state, Alaskans have found ways to do more for their neighbors, their community, and the people that are working the front lines of this pandemic.  I appreciate you have recognized Dr. Anne Zink for her role and the opportunity that she has had to present here to the Convention.  But we’ve seen so many others stepping up in different ways.  Doyon built two man camps and turned an existing camp into temporary housing for village residents who were stuck due to travel restrictions.  NANA supported Elder care kits which included everything from masks, thermometers, and pulse oximeters.  Almost all of the regional and village corporations have provided support to their communities to plan, to prepare, and to respond alongside tribes and tribal consortiums.

In rural Alaska, I think we recognize that we don’t get lost in these arguments about who “should” respond, everyone who “can” just does.  They pitch in.  And that’s why I’ve been so frustrated with what was an historic effort to respond to the pandemic has turned into this fight to replace lost revenues for tribal businesses in the Lower 48.  When we developed the CARES Act, Don, Dan, and I fought really hard to ensure that $8 billion was set aside for tribes and Alaska Native Corporations to respond to the pandemic.  Those funds were solely intended to support the cost of responding to the pandemic.

Some have tried to make this about sovereignty and have ignored how many Alaska Natives – particularly in urban areas like Anchorage and Fairbanks – how many are served by 638 compacts that are executed by ANCSA Regional Corporations and their designated tribal organizations.  So, leaving ANCs out of the response fund in the CARES Act could disenfranchise tens of thousands of Alaska Natives.

We have seen with COVID-19 a spotlight, and one of those spotlights has really served to highlight the inequality in our country in a multitude of ways.  Areas that lack adequate broadband face disparate impacts as kids try to learn virtually.  Low-income, service sector workers have been the hit perhaps the hardest.  Minority communities face higher death rates and limited access to care.  And we see that anger and frustration over these inequities manifest in racial tensions across the country and it challenges all us to ask the broader question: how do we address inequality in our country?

I think it starts by acknowledging inequality and the challenges facing people of color.  Whether it is through my work on the Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, or to extend the Census deadline – we must do everything that we can to ensure that we can to ensure that every Alaskan is counted and that your voices are heard.

We’ve begun to make some headway on the matter, the epidemic truly, of missing or murdered indigenous women.  When I joined with Senator Heidi Heitkamp in 2017 in working to advance Savanna’s Act, this crisis was largely ignored by the media and by policymakers.  But together, with many of you, we persisted and just days ago, both Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act became law.  So that was great news.

Last year, I told you that I added specific funding for missing, murdered, indigenous women initiative to my Interior appropriations bill.  And this year, six offices dedicated to cold cases have opened across the country, including one in Anchorage. 

Thanks to Assistant Secretary Sweeney’s strong leadership, along with the partnership of Dan and Don in our delegation, we have brought federal attention and resources to the public safety crisis in rural Alaska.  Attorney General Barr has never forgotten what he saw when he visited us.  He continues to be an ally in pushing for more public safety resources.  Dan has led with his POWER Act, turning his work on Choose Respect to the national level and ensuring victims of sexual assault have access to the legal services that they need.  So he’s been a real leader there.

We recognize that resources are more important than ever as stay-at-home orders have added new stressors on vulnerable families.  I know we all grieved in July when we saw five domestic violence homicides in western Alaska in just a 10 day period.

The pandemic has limited access to shelters.  It has decreased bed capacity that was already consistently full.  So I’ve been leading the effort to secure funding for tribes and tribal organizations to serve survivors, including for domestic violence shelters and working on solutions to increase bed capacity.  I really appreciate the work of so many.  I think about tireless advocates like Tami Jerue at the Alaska Native Women’s Center that really work to make this happen. 

Ultimately, we have to develop lasting partnerships that provide the durable commitment to public safety that rural Alaska needs.  My Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act proposes to expand the jurisdiction that we won in the 2013 VAWA to include sexual violence, sex trafficking, and stalking.  Don Young first proposed this idea when the House took up its version of VAWA and we’ve worked really closely together in developing our latest bill.

I think it’s important to recognize that Don’s position in the House empowers our entire delegation and our seniority is really critical, it’s key, for Alaska.  With term limits on Senate committee leadership, this is my last year as Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  But next year I’m going to gain a leadership role on the Indian Affairs Committee, and I intend to focus on fostering the innovation that’s happening all across Alaska.  We see so many examples.

For example, Alaska’s Tribal Health System helped show other states how to respond to the current public health crisis.  What we have learned – the power of telemedicine, the importance of supply chains, and the critical role the Tribal Health System plays in supporting the entire health system in our state – I think these will all help inform efforts to improve the IHS.

From public safety to public health, and from economic development to infrastructure and telecommunications, the Indian Affairs Committee will provide a forum for us all to dive into the challenges that we are seeing and to collaborate on innovative solutions.

Just as we have done on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where I have used my tenure and my seniority to advance priorities for our state.  We have opened new lands for development in the NPR-A and the 1002 Area.  We have ensured access in the Tongass by enacting legislation like the Sealaska lands bill and the Mental Health Trust land exchange.  We’ve got more on the way – I’m introducing a new bill that will finally provide lands for the five Landless communities in Southeast, as well as equitable revenue sharing from resource development.

I am also closely monitoring the proposed Pebble mine.  I have been clear throughout that I oppose the project.  I recognize the need for new economic development in southwest Alaska, I think we all do, but it is simply think this is the wrong mine in the wrong place. 

The administration has said that Pebble cannot be permitted as proposed, and I agree with that.  And I plan to build on my Appropriations language from last year to ensure that the Bristol Bay region remains protected. 

But while we may have stopped Pebble today, I think now is the time to start thinking about the future.  We need longer-term protections for the region that can also provide enduring value for Alaskans.  And I’m planning on working on this in this next Congress.

I want to conclude my remarks by noting how this day started off.  Julie, we were introduced to the head of Northern Command, General VanHerck.  It was a reminder of the role that the military plays for us in Alaska.  But your efforts Julie to bring the military to this broader Alaska dialogue I think are so important and are certainly paying real dividends.  And it’s not just in greater attention to the Arctic and Alaska – but in drawing in companies like PDI, like SpaceX, and OneWeb to discuss new satellite technologies, and helping us gain support for a Ted Stevens Arctic Security Studies Center.

Ted, Ted Stevens, is always with me, guiding me to do what’s right for Alaska regardless of the politics.  Just as visionary Alaskans like Mary Jane Fate, Jacob Adams, and Byron Mallott will always be with me.  From Mary Jane’s grace, to Jake’s quiet strength, to Byron’s proud heart – each blessed us with their leadership, they gave us their friendship, and their legacies live on in the institutions that they have entrusted to us.

I try to remember the strength of their wisdom when I think of the suffering that the pandemic continues to cause.  And when the politics of division, of personal destruction, and hate cloud our present, and the outrage of the day drives us to distraction, I reflect upon the ways that they worked together and the examples of that they have set. 

Those are examples we can follow.  Those are the approaches that will help us through this year and lead us to brighter days.  Thank you and Gunalchéesh!

Related Issues: Alaska Natives & Rural Alaska