Pandemic dominates discussions as AFN convention goes virtual

Alaska Federation of Natives co-chair Will Mayo during the virtual 2020 AFN Convention. (Source: 360 North)

Whether you watched on TV, Zoom or listened to the radio, this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention was different. With the coronavirus making an in-person convention unsafe, the state’s largest annual gathering of Indigenous people came together virtually.

There were no booths to browse handcrafted art pieces and attendees had to settle for virtual hugs. The convention was a drier affair than usual.

AFN Board of Directors co-chair Ana Hoffman addressed the new format as the convention opened.

“Even though we’re unable to meet in person this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, technology does allow us to see and hear from our members from across the state of Alaska,” Hoffman said.

The theme of this year’s convention was “Good Government, Alaskans Decide.”

Bryce Edgmon, Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives, gave the keynote address. Edgmon is the state’s first Alaska Native house speaker and used his speech to remind Native listeners that they’re the backbone of the state.

“A lot of people come and go,” Edgmon said. “But a lot of people, like us on this call, are here for the long run and we constantly keep an eye on the long term welfare of the state.”

Edgmon listed his mentors, prominent Alaska Native legislators like Al Adams, Reggie Joule, Frank Ferguson and Georgianna Lincoln. He said he expects Native leadership to continue to expand.

“We will have an Alaska Native governor,” Edgmon said. “We will have an Alaska Native Senate president, we’ll have another Alaska [Native] speaker. We’ll have somebody in Congress, and we’ll have somebody in the U.S. Senate. I know that time is coming. It’s just a matter of time.”

Edgmon ended his remarks with a plea that listeners wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands.

COVID-19 continued to dominate the convention as listeners heard a pre-recorded message from Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his wife Rose. The governor spoke of how devastating a prior pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu, was for rural Alaska. He said that damage informed his administration’s response to the current pandemic.

“As a result, in preparing for and battling this pandemic, rural Alaska, including our fellow Alaska Natives, were not an afterthought,” Dunleavy said. “During the planning and execution of mitigating approaches to deal with this virus, you were in fact front and center.”

Dunleavy ended his remarks highlighting cooperation between state and rural entities in combatting the pandemic.

“The partnership between Native health corporations, tribal leaders, village elders and the state is a testament to our ability to set aside what divides us and work together,” Dunleavy said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski spoke live to convention attendees and highlighted her efforts in getting two laws signed into law — Savannah’s Act and the Not Invisible Act. Murkowski sponsored the former.

“We’ve begun to make some headway on the matter, the epidemic truly, of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Murkowski said.

She also took a swipe at efforts to exclude Alaska Native Corporations from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Recently, a District of Columbia Circuit court ruled that the for-profit corporations were not eligible for funds meant for tribes. Murkowski disagreed.

“So leaving ANCs out of the response fund in the CARES Act could disenfranchise tens of thousands of Alaska Natives,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski also pushed for resource development, touting efforts in opening the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the 1002 section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development. She took time however to disavow the proposed Pebble Mine project, calling it the “wrong mine in the wrong place.” Her position mirrors that of Sen. Dan Sullivan, who came out strongly against the mine after a video surfaced showing the CEO of the project suggesting Alaska’s two Republican senators wouldn’t fight it.

Though occasional technical glitches prompted slight delays in panels and speeches, it didn’t take away from the focus of the day — how Alaska Natives and their various governments work together.

Earlier in the morning, the AFN board honored three individuals with their annual awards.

Katherine Gottlieb, former CEO of Southcentral Foundation was named Citizen of the Year. Gottlieb resigned earlier this year, shortly after her husband and two others were accused of falsifying dental records. Southcentral Foundation officials said they don’t believe Gottlieb was involved in any of those allegations.

The Denali Award, gifted annually to a non-Native person for their contributions, was given to Cook Inlet Tribal Council chief legal officer Lisa Reiger. The AFN Board also gave a special award to Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, for her efforts in leading the state’s COVID-19 response.

The convention will conclude Friday evening.

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