Alaska Natives press unity on sovereignty
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The largest gathering of Alaska Natives opened on Thursday with leaders vowing to thwart attacks on their right to self-determination.

Speakers at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage launched an ambitious campaign to counter what they see as a growing threat to their sovereignty. They cited potential changes in the status of Alaska Native governments and a bill to change how federal funds are distributed.

"We cannot, we must not and we will not relinquish our right to self-determination as Alaska Native peoples," said AFN President Julie Kitka.

Echoing the sentiment was Jackie Johnson, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization. Johnson, a member of Alaska's Tlingit Tribe, said Natives everywhere must unite.

"We are many and strong," she told AFN attendees. "If we raise our voices to say we cannot be divided, we will not be divided."

Self-determination was expected to be a major focus of the conference, which has drawn about 5,000 from all over the state. Attendees are concerned about the potential for the Bush administration to alter the United States' relationship with 229 Alaska Native governments.

"We will resist any attempts to redefine who we are or to change our political status without our direct involvement and consent," Kitka said.

Kitka outlined a congressional and political campaign to combat any changes. Hearings before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and an audience with Secretary Gale Norton -- who has been asked to reconsider the Clinton administration's recognition of Alaska Natives -- have been requested, she said.

Alaska Native leaders are also reacting to a proposal by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to consolidate their governments in order to receive federal funds. Stevens believes a regional structure similar to for-profit Alaska Native corporations, which are not tribes, will be more efficient.

The idea, although still in its early stage, has met with widespread resistance. Conference attendees were warned that restrictions on federal spending in light of terrorism and the budget deficit will mean fewer dollars for Alaska Native programs.

Another issue tied to sovereignty was subsistence rights for hunting, fishing and gathering. Outgoing Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) drew rounds of applause for a speech describing his reason not to appeal the landmark Katie John case to the Supreme Court.

"Eight years ago, state government was fighting the efforts of an Athabaskan great grandmother whose supposed crime was trying to provide subsistence for her family as she and her ancestors had done for centuries," he recalled. "I said: no more. I vowed that Alaska would never again fight Katie John and thousands like her who know the strength, care and value that subsistence provides to rural and Alaska Native families."

The remarks were a campaign pitch for Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who is facing Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) in a close gubernatorial race. Murkowski, in a speech later in the day, also used the occasion to seek support for his election.

"Remember when my opponent took on the assignment of solving subsistence seven years ago? It failed," he told AFN. "Passing the blame isn't the answer for solving the problem. I think its an excuse for failing to do the job."

AFN continues today with a debate between the candidates. The organization is considering an endorsement in the race and Native voters could prove pivotal.

The convention concludes tomorrow.

Relevant Documents:
Knowles Speech to Alaska Federation of Natives (10/24)

Relevant Links:
Alaska Federation in Anchorage -

Related Stories:
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)
Stevens: 'Problem' with Alaska Natives (01/29)