SPEECH: Tanana Chiefs Conference Annual Convention
I am so happy to join you during this very special week in Fairbanks. The week that begins with the TCC Annual Meeting, includes the annual Fairbanks Native Association gatherings and concludes with the Doyon Annual Meeting and the Open North American Sled Dog Race. Officially spring begins on Friday. I know it’s hard to get your mind into spring until breakup but for me this wonderful week in Fairbanks has always signified the end of winter and the count down to the summer. Seeing the days grow longer and longer proves me right.
But before we get our minds into summer I know that there is some important business to attend to. And my task today is to give you some insight into what is going on in Washington that informs your work.
When I last visited with you, during the AFN Convention, I was uncertain about which party would control the Senate during its 2015-2016 session. As a result of last year’s elections, I now serve in the majority for the first time since 2007. In that time I have risen in seniority in the Senate. This year, I am Chairman of the appropriations subcommittee which funds both the BIA and the Indian Health Service. I am also a senior member in the majority of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Since I came to the Senate in 2003 I was determined to improve funding levels for the types of self-governance programs which deliver vital services in our Alaska Native villages. Although we live in difficult financial times and I will have a limited amount of money to work with, this is still my foremost objective in the appropriations process.
In recent years we have worked together to bring the new TCC Health Clinic on line. In the coming years I will work with you to sustain that clinic, as well as to strengthen our village based health programs.
Public safety in our villages remains a critical priority as well. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has long discriminated against tribes in Public Law 280 states like Alaska when it comes to tribal court funding. I have told BIA that it is time this discrimination comes to an end. Tanana Chiefs Conference, through the mentorship of Lisa Yager, is recognized as a national leader in tribal court development. The annual tribal court conference here draws leaders from around the country. It is long time that the BIA recognize our leadership in tribal court development and make a significant investment in the judicial branches of our tribal governments.
But it’s not just in the rural areas that we need to improve public safety. I am still not satisfied about the direction of the state investigation into the Fairbanks Four. I am even more dissatisfied that the US Department of Justice has not taken a greater interest in the case. I have spoken about the Fairbanks Four with Attorney General Designate Loretta Lynch and intend to keep the pressure on to ensure that there is a comprehensive re-examination of these convictions.
On a national level there is an increased focus on the relationship between minority communities and local law enforcement – all as a result of the tragedies in Ferguson Missouri and Staten Island New York. New resources will be brought to improving these relationships – in making policing in partnership with the community a reality. As those programs develop it is my intent to ensure that relationships between Native communities and urban police departments are not ignored.
In the Indian Affairs Committee we are turning our focus to reauthorization of NAHASDA- the Native American housing legislation. We are holding a hearing on this important bill Wednesday and hope to begin the process of moving it to the floor next week.
Another major bill on the horizon is the transportation bill. This is critically important for Alaska’s Indian Reservation Roads funding. We expect to see this bill take shape this spring. If recent history we will have our work cut out for us in protecting Alaska’s equitable share of the Indian roads money.
Since 1998 the Denali Commission has been a catalyst for all sorts of needed development in rural Alaska. Clinics, transportation facilities, fuel storage. In recent years, the Commission has seen a reduction in funding – some of it self-inflicted -- due to management difficulties and infighting at the Commission. Last year, I decided proactive steps were needed to ensure that the Commission is not put out of business. I asked for a thorough Government Accountability Office review of Commission management. This work is nearing completion but we have already seen long needed management improvements at the Commission. I am hoping that through our reform efforts we have laid the groundwork for refocusing the Commission on its mission – development in rural Alaska.
I would be remiss if I didn’t speak of some of the important things that are happening outside of the Native community. Over the past two years this community has come together to ensure a bright future for Eielson Air Force Base. We are on the cusp of achieving that bright future with the Air Force decision to base the F-35, its most advanced fighter aircraft, in the wings. That should open up some terrific new construction job opportunities over the next several years as the Air Force readies Eielson for the first arrival of F-35s in 2019. We should work together to ensure equitable local and Native hire on these projects.
In the coming months we should also get news about where a new missile defense radar will be sited. Clear Air Force Station is a leading candidate – and if it is selected we will see a second major construction project coming to the Interior in the next few years. That work will be taking place at the same time as the F-35 buildup at Eielson – a good omen for construction employment in the years to come.
And that allows me to end on a high note. There are still a great many challenges that face our Interior Native community. But a great many opportunities at well. Here in the Interior we do a great job at making the most of what we have. That shining new clinic is a great example. Working together to rebuild Galena is another great example. I feel very good when I appear before TCC each year because I know about the great progress we are making. And I leave this meeting confident in your ability to keep making things better.
Anna Basse. Masi cho. Thank you all so much for sharing part of your day with me.