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Alaska Natives call for unity at annual convention
Friday, October 24, 2003

The largest gathering of Alaska Natives kicked off on Thursday with a rousing message to stay united in the face of challenges to Native rights.

The annual Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) convention has drawn thousands to Anchorage for three days of meetings at the Egan Center. On opening day, delegates heard from AFN President Julie Kitka, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) and state and federal officials on the need to work together to solve common problems. Jobs, education and health were high on the agenda.

But it was an address from Jackie Johnson, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), that drove the point home. Johnson, a member of Alaska's Tlingit Tribe, said she was speaking from the heart when she noted the state's indigenous people were deeply divided into two camps: traditional tribal governments and for-profit corporations.

"In recent years, we've been seeing the increasing friction between our tribal governments and corporations," she said. "But at the end of the day, these are merely two sides of our own selves, two elements that are absolutely critical to our survival, two structures that must have shared goals if we are to survive as distinct people."

As a former tribal council member and a sitting member of the board of directors of a regional corporation, Johnson acknowledged that tribes and corporations have "fundamentally different goals." "Yet let there be no mistake, we need both voices to fully protect the interest of our people," she said.

The remarks served to highlight a legislative proposal to change how Alaska's 220-plus tribes receive federal funds. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wants to redirect tribal money to the state or regional organizations -- perhaps the corporations -- because he says not every village can expect to have their own justice system or housing departments, particularly when times are tight.

The proposal, contained in riders to appropriations bills, has sparked concern among Native leaders and their advocates. It didn't help when Stevens, speaking to the Alaska media, said the Native sovereignty movement threatened the state.

"You are self-governing, self-determining peoples living in tribes throughout Alaska and that poses no threat to the state," said Myra Munson, an attorney whose work for Alaska Natives earned her this year's Denali Award, AFN's highest honor for non-Natives. "It poses no threat to the non-Native citizens of this state."

Many Natives feel the push to change how they receive services is an attack on their federal recognition. The Bush administration has been asked by Alaska Republicans to reconsider the status of each tribe. But Kitka said AFN would fight to keep the tribal question separate from the funding one.

"We cannot afford to have anyone sit on the sidelines because nobody can say it's a tribal problem, it's a non-profit problem, or it's this or that," she said. "We going to need everybody's help. The only way we're going to survive these challenges is if we pull together and have the most united Native community we have ever had."

The unity theme was echoed by Johnson, who called on Native leaders from the tribes and corporations to respond to the funding issue by developing solutions of their own. "If we let our tribal status be diminished or taken from us, if we let others control or shape our governmental structures and our relationship to the federal government," she told delegates, "I believe that every generation to come will look back to this time with regret and shame."

"Indecision is not an option," she added. If we do not decide, others will decide for us."

AFN runs through Saturday. KNBA 90.3 FM carries live audio converage through http://www.knba.org. Live video is also available through a link on the AFN web site at http://www.nativefederation.org/frames/2003convention.html.

Relevant Links:
Alaska Federation of Natives - http://www.nativefederation.org/flash.html

Related Stories:
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Stevens won't back away from Native funding issue (10/23)
Alaska Natives discuss village law enforcement (10/23)
Live coverage of AFN convention available (10/23)
Alaska Native: 'We became the other N-word' (10/21)
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Editorial: Stevens should apologize for remarks (10/13)
Murkowski won't offer opinion on Native riders (10/13)
Stevens blames sovereignty push on lower 48 group (10/9)
Stevens remarks on Alaska Natives draw fire (10/7)
Alaska Natives oppose limits to tribal court funding (09/23)
Alaska court hears suit on village law enforcement (09/18)
Bill cuts funds to Alaska tribal justice systems (09/10)
Alaska Natives debunk federal funding myths (05/07)
Stevens files Alaska Native gaming rider (01/24)
Alaska Natives press unity on sovereignty (10/25)
Stevens: Too many Alaska Native tribes (10/24)
AFN events kick off today in Anchorage (10/21)
GOP request has Alaska Natives fuming (1/28)
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