As the year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Convention began Thursday in Fairbanks this year’s theme – “Good Government, Alaskan Driven,” loomed large. Many of the speakers, panels and protests were focused on what exactly is good government for Alaska.
The convention opened with a performance by the Tagiumiut Dancers from the North Slope. There were opening remarks, the pledge of allegiance, and a show of support for Alaska Native veterans. But hanging over the morning was an address by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Many saw this year’s AFN agenda as a rebuke of his administration’s policies, and the atmosphere was tense as Dunleavy took the stage.
“We all know the budget discussions were very difficult and at times contentious this last year. I will be the first to say as governor I must take responsibility for my part in this process, and I will work hard to make sure the budget process goes more smoothly this year.”
Not far into his speech, Dunleavy was met with protests: a drum, some chanting, and dozens of people who stood, turned their backs to the stage and raised their fists. The governor tried to keep going with his speech until AFN co-chair Will Mayo broke in.
“I can’t agree with this. We have different views. We have different views. We may approach things differently. But we have a man here who is in a seat of authority, and there are ways we can express our differences. When we gather together and we invite somebody into our house, we do it out of respect, and we do it with kindness in the Native way,” he said.
Dunleavy went on with his speech, followed by remarks from his wife, Rose Dunleavy, and there were no subsequent interruptions.
The pushback against the governor that followed was more political and policy-oriented than personal. Speakers highlighted the need to vote, complete the census for accurate redistricting counts, and offered vigorous defenses of the Power Cost Equalization program.
Greg Razo is with CIRI and serves as an AFN board member. He said the current administration and members of the Legislature are pursuing changes to the state constitution that could have longstanding impacts, and told the crowd that Alaska Native residents need to be engaged in the discussion about those measures.
“When we look at all of that requests for change, we have to understand why we would do it. What’s the reason we would change our constitution? It’s worked very well for so very long, and has been our protection and our shield, the source of our rights,” he said.
The discussion over state politics overlapped with one of the other major topics to dominate AFN’s first day: public safety. For Victor Joseph with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the theme of good government connects both.
“It’s about these women that are missing and murdered. For me, it means our rural communities don’t have to carry the weight of our state’s deficit on their backs while the rest of Alaska does OK,” he said.
Many speakers addressed the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and children, as well as the high rates of violence faced by rural Alaskans.
AFN president Julie Kitka asked the crowd for a moment of silence to remember Kathleen Henry, a woman from Eek who was the victim of a brutal murder in Anchorage. Kitka highlighted how much the state stands to gain by taking advantage of the Justice Department’s recent attention on the issue of violence in rural Alaska.
“We need help that’s lasting, we need help that’s not just grant based where you have to apply to this, we need it sustainable, we need it to flow into our compacts and let our tribes have a say so in how to manage these resources, and we need local control,” she said.
The most enthusiastic response from attendees had nothing to do with politics or social problems, but instead, dog mushing. This year’s keynote speaker was Bethel’s Pete Kaiser, who became the first musher of Yup’ik descent to win the Iditarod in March. Kaiser said he’d found success by modeling his kennel and dog training program by creating a miniature version of a healthy community.
“The last part of our community is our retired dogs, or our elders,” Kaiser said. “These dogs spend their days training puppies, relaxing on their doghouses, and passing down years of knowledge and wisdom learned over thousands of miles on the trail.”
In recognition of his accomplishments and values, co-chair Will Mayo presented Kaiser with an Athabascan chief’s necklace, the highest mark of a leader among interior cultures.