State budget, public safety and climate change weigh heavy at annual AFN Convention
FAIRBANKS— “Good Government, Alaska Driven” was the theme of the 53rd annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, held this year in Fairbanks Oct. 17 through 19.
“Good government’ refers to how well the state is meeting the needs of Alaskans. The Dunleavy Administration tested the bounds of this principle in 2019,” the agenda states, referring to Republican Governor Michael Dunleavy whose first 10 months in office have resulted in efforts to recall him from office. Alaska Native groups have been at odds with Dunleavy over his attempts to significantly cut government programs that are vital for rural Alaskans, many of whom live in remote Native villages. Cuts targeted mental health and youth services, public radio and television and marine ferry services between coastal communities and the village public safety officer program that helps keep people safe in communities with no law enforcement presence.
As is tradition the Governor addressed the attendees at the start of the convention accompanied by his wife of 31 years, Rose, who, it was noted during introductions, is the first Alaska Native first lady of the state.
Dozens of protesters rose from their seats a few minutes into Dunleavy’s speech, turning their backs and raising their fists. Some began chanting, and one person banged on a drum until AFN co-chair Will Mayo stepped onto the stage, interrupting the governor’s speech to admonish the protestors for showing disrespect.
“I respect your right to protest in this way, but I want to ask you with respect to please express your views at the voting booth,” Mayo said. “Please express your views in a productive way and please don’t come into our house and disrespect our guest.”
Dunleavy resumed his speech without acknowledging the protest that was prompted by a handout circulating prior to the speech asking attendees to stand, turn their backs and raise their fists for four minutes to symbolize the $444 million that he vetoed from the state budget earlier this year. “Stand with Alaska Native leaders to show what we really think of Dunleavy’s leadership,” the handout said, adding a reference to the recall campaign against the governor: “#RecallDunleavy.”
Those four minutes of protest in the first hours of the convention were the only significant disruptions during the three-day event. Heavy topics of public safety, violence against women and climate change dominated the remainder of the agenda.
$42 million federal funds for public safety
Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan joined U.S. Attorney General William Barr via a live video broadcast from Washington, D.C. on Thursday to announce an additional $42 million in federal funds for improving public safety across the state.
Wearing a bright blue qaspeq, gifted during his May trip to Alaska, Barr thanked the senators for educating him on the special challenges unique to the state they represent.
“I view the job of attorney general to serve all the people and I wanted to go where I thought the need was greatest,” Barr said.
“I recognize the depth of the need in Alaska and unique challenges in public safety and not just because of distances. There’s an importance of honoring the fact that Alaska has in the native villages these great traditional communities with such a long heritage.”
The $42 million is in addition to the more than $10 million Barr made available to the state when he declared a law enforcement emergency in rural Alaska after his spring trip. That money was directed to critical law enforcement needs of physical infrastructure such as holding cells and to hiring and training of officers.
“It is important as a society that we provide safety and ensure the public safety of people who are living where they live, in the way they want to live, in the traditions they want to live by and not force people to move into the cities to simply be safe,” Barr said.
The new funds will come in the form of grant awards to Alaska Native tribes and tribal designees to support victim services and village law enforcement through the tribal set asides program. The Denali Commission will also be involved administering a portion of the allotted grant dollars through a micro grant program.
Violence against women
In addition to joining Barr on Thursday via teleconference, Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan each addressed the convention in person on Saturday. Both mentioned again the new Department of Justice funding for public safety as well as action focused on violence against Native women.
Murkowski noted that Alaska Native women are over-represented by 250 percent as victims of domestic violence and that one in three communities in rural Alaska have no local law enforcement. She announced to the convention that she recently introduced a bill called the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act to continue to address the public safety crisis in rural Alaska. Specifically, the bill expands the jurisdiction provided in the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 to apply to Alaska Native villages on a pilot basis. The previous law provided that tribes have the power to prosecute certain non-Natives who violate qualifying protection orders or commit domestic or dating violence against Indian victims in Indian country.
In addition, this new act empowers Alaska Natives to obtain protection under the Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction that encompasses incidents of domestic violence. The empowerment act also covers sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking and assault of law enforcement or corrections officers.
This legislation builds upon the Alaska pilot championed by Congressman Don Young in HR 1585 that the House passed in April.
“Far too many communities in Alaska know what it feels like to lack any means to seek help or justice for a crime of domestic violence or sexual assault because their village lacks advocacy services and law enforcement. This bill aims to change that and empowers villages to develop local solutions to problems,” Murkowski said.
Later on Saturday Sen. Sullivan discussed the bill in his address to the convention. Sullivan said he co-sponsored the legislation to focus more attention on violence against Native women. He also again lauded the funding by the Department of Justice.
“We have a public safety crisis in our state. These funds will go far to help realize the goal of a public safety officer in every village in Alaska,” Sullivan said. “Now that to me is what good government looks like.”
He noted that these are the same basic protections that communities in the Lower 48 already enjoy. Sullivan also pointed out that the number of rapes in Alaska rose by 11 percent in 2018 and that the rate in the state is already 250 percent higher than the national average in 2017. “This is intolerable. These are our sisters and our mothers and our spouses and our aunties and our daughters. These are our neighbors and our friends,” Sullivan said.”
“We have so much potential as a state, but we can’t realize it if we don’t stop this, if the men of Alaska don’t stop this,” he said.
The other heavy issue hanging over the conference was that of climate change. It divided delegates on the convention floor during the annual consideration of resolutions period and dominated discussions at the Youth and Elders Conference held in the days prior to the convention.
In a timely report, Paul Charles, Newtok Village Council tribal president, provided an update on the relocation of residents due to climate changes causing increasingly fierce storms that have eroded shorelines and temperatures that are melting permafrost causing homes to crumble.
Newtok, a village of about 400, sits between the Ningliq and Newtok Rivers in the Bethel census area. In 2003 they acquired a new community site on Nelson Island called Mertarvik in a land trade with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
After 20 years of discussion and planning the first 20 homes are now in place across the river and 80 percent of the community infrastructure is in place including water/sewer and roads, reported Charles. He also noted that they still have a lot to do but are the leaders in advance of 31 other communities who also need to move and will be going through the same process as they are now.
On Saturday youth delegates Nanieezh Peter of Arctic Village and Quannah Chasing Horse Potts of Fairbanks brought to the convention floor a resolution they co-wrote with Nome youth Zoe Okleasik and Alicyn Bahnke.
Peter and Potts passionately requested that this resolution and seven others drafted by youth and elders be included in regular AFN resolution voting and delegates agreed. The most contentious resolution highlighted the severe impacts that climate change is having on Indigenous ways of life and the spiritual and cultural well-being of Alaska Native communities.
“In recent years we have lost community members due to unpredictable and unsafe ice conditions, have seen the die off and disease of seals, salmon, migratory birds, shellfish, whales, polar bears, and recognize that these are also our relatives” the resolution states. After an hour of debate, the resolution passed declaring a climate change emergency and calling for the creation of a climate change leadership task force within AFN with the purpose of advancing Indigenous voices and advocating for strong climate policies that will ensure the survival of future generations.
For a look at the entire list of resolutions and updates related to the overall convention visit the Alaska Federation of Natives website at https://www.nativefederation.org/convention.
AFN is the largest statewide Native organization in Alaska. It is governed by a 38-member board, which is elected by its membership at the annual convention held each October. Annually, the convention draws about 5,000 attendees with Alaska’s two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, alternating hosting duties.
Convention organizers noted that the 2019 theme of “Good Government: Alaska Driven,” will be followed up next year with, “Good Government: Alaska Decides.”