Tough topics overshadow 2018 AFN’s Innovation theme
The Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, the largest representative annual gathering of indigenous people in the nation, brought together more than 6,000 people from across the state and Outside to Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center Oct. 18 through 20.
“Innovation in the Past, Present and Future” was the theme of the 52nd iteration. “With this year’s theme, AFN recognizes that innovation has been an essential part of Alaska Native success for thousands of years,” AFN President Julie Kitka said.
She explained that technology plays a role in all facets of people’s lives and encouraged facilitating innovation while also respecting culture and tradition. Kitka hoped that the convention would “showcase the kind of creative energy and cool ideas that link present day and tomorrow.”
Innovation may have been the overall theme, but combating sexual assault and opioid addiction took center stage throughout the event as did the upcoming elections for governor and U.S. House of Representatives.
Just prior to the start of AFN, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who normally takes a visible role at the convention, as the first Alaska Native elected to statewide office, submitted his resignation.
Mallott, 75, of Haida and Tlingit descent, admitted to making “inappropriate comments” to a woman.
Walker’s spokespersons would only confirm that the comments were not made to anyone on staff.
Mallott attended the Youth and Elders Conference that preceded AFN, but was not present for the main conference.
Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, 51, of Yup’ik descent from Southwest Alaska, replaced Mallott as Lt. Gov. Davidson, formerly the state’s health and social services commissioner addressed the convention keynote speaker.
Davidson acknowledged recent events saying “these last few days have been tough, but today is a new day.” She spoke about her own childhood trauma while reminding listeners that even though bad things happen in childhood they do not have to define a person’s future or who they are as people.
Davidson encouraged attendees to do their best no matter the circumstances. “People will do the most amazing things under the most impossible conditions, as long as they have the right reasons,” she said. “When you lead with love, you never stand alone.”
As is customary, the governor followed the keynote speaker to address the convention. Walker started off with a few general remarks, but soon explained that he felt it was appropriate to address the Mallott situation.
He acknowledged that he considers Mallott his brother and his closest friend and that would not change. “Sometimes leaders fall down, it’s what we do after the fall that defines who we are,” Walker said. Mallott’s resignation was the right thing for him to do.
“We will only fully heal when every woman in Alaska is treated with respect,” Walker said, as he thanked all the women who have come forward about the mistreatment in their lives. He also reiterated that his is an administration that honors, respects and believes women.
After reflecting on travels throughout Alaska as governor, Walker wrapped up his speech with a formal apology that he said came from spending a lot of time reflecting on doing the right thing.
“I conclude today with this message, as the 11th governor of the State of Alaska, I apologize to you, Alaska’s first people, for the wrongs that you have endured for generations,” he said. “For being forced into boarding schools, I apologize. For [being] forced to abandon your Native language and adopt a foreign one, I apologize. For erasing your history, I apologize. For the generational and historic trauma you have suffered, I apologize,” Walker said.
He finished by saying, “this apology is long overdue. It is but one step of hundreds more to go on this journey toward, truth, reconciliation and healing.”
His words were met with a standing ovation.
Addressing sexual assault
More than half the victims of sex abuse in Alaska are Alaska Natives, according to a 2017 Department of Public Safety report.
Three resolutions, 18-10, 18-11 and 18-12, addressing sexual assault were taken up by the delegation on Saturday. All three resolutions were prompted by recent events relating to attacks on Alaska Native women: The rape and slaying of 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr in Kotzebue; a controversial plea deal for Justin Schneider that resulted in no immediate jail time after he admitted to choking and masturbating on a Native woman who accepted a ride with him; and the stories of two Nome women, Clarice “Bun” Hardy and Deidre Levi, questioning the city’s willingness to investigate their rapes were also referenced.
Resolution 18-10, “Supporting changes in the Alaska statutes to make conduct involved in the recent case involving an assault on a Native woman a sex offense and support for a general review of Alaska statutes regarding sex offenses by the Criminal Justice Commission,” passed overwhelmingly without discussion.
Resolution 18-11, “calling for an outside investigation of the disparate treatment in the Alaska criminal justice system of cases involving Alaska Native offenders and victims,” passed after a discussion fine-tuning the language of the clauses within the resolution and a more detailed amendment.
Melanie Bahnke, representing the Bering Strait region, put forward her region’s caucus recommendations to amend the resolution to add “cultural humility and anti-racist training” for all law enforcement personnel, which passed without discussion.
Resolution 18-12, “resolution urging the Alaska Native community to lead the state of Alaska in breaking the barrier of silence around childhood sexual assault and for other purposes” also passed after further discussion.
In particular, Elsie Boudreau of St. Mary’s, added wording to stress that “it is our responsibility as adults to protect our children.” She also asked to add an amendment to include reference to the more than 300 Alaskans who have come forward to say they were victims of sexual abuse by clergy, of which she is one.
Fighting opioids and other drugs in Native communities also brought emotional responses during the resolutions and throughout the convention.
Delbert Rexford, chief executive of Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, spoke with tears in his eyes as he brought forward discussion of resolution 18-4 that he and his corporation sponsored.
He explained to delegates how intensely personal the issue is for him after his son killed himself in 2016 following introduction to drugs when he drank a methamphetamine-laced drink.
AFN passed the measure that calls on agencies and local governments to increase enforcement, penalties and treatment to rid communities of methamphetamine, heroine and opioids.
The resolutions passed at the convention are nonbinding, but are influential when AFN uses them to advocate for change with federal, state and local agencies.
The gathering also featured speeches from elected officials, military representatives and a candidates forum where Democratic candidate Alyse Galvin faced off against longtime Republican Congressman Don Young.
The planned gubernatorial debate changed from a three to two-way and became somewhat subdued after Gov. Walker announced he would not seek re-election.
As with previous years, more than 150 artists participated in the Native arts bazaar, held alongside a health fair, awards ceremonies, legal clinic and two nights of Quyana, showcasing traditional dance groups.
AFN now represents about 140,000 Alaska Natives statewide, roughly 200 regional and village Native corporations, and 186 tribal governments.