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Murkowski Speaks to Alaska Federation of Natives Convention

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks. Following are Sen. Murkowski’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

 

REMARKS OF SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI

AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY

ALASKA FEDERATION OF NATIVES CONVENTION

OCTOBER 21, 2010

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA

 

In 2005, the Alaska Federation of Natives made history. You took the bold step of bringing your annual convention to Fairbanks. This golden heart community came together with its unique community spirit to make all of you feel welcome. So much so that you came back in 2007 and again now in 2010.

And it is a huge honor for Fairbanks and the Interior to host AFN. This convention, along with the Elders and Youth Conference, is Alaska’s family reunion.

Thank you, Don Honea, Traditional Chief of the Interior. Thank you for bringing Alaska’s Native people together in your homeland.  Thank you to the great Native organizations of Interior Alaska – Doyon, TCC, FNA, and the Denakkanaaga Elders. Thank you for all of your hard work in making this week a success.

Welcome to all joining me in the Carlson Center, especially the veterans who have served our Nation with great distinction. Welcome to our extended family around the State – viewing the convention on GCI Cable or listening on KNBA. And welcome to the many friends of the Alaska Native community around the world who are viewing the convention on the Internet.

Seven years ago I came before this convention for the first time as your United States Senator.  In my address to the AFN Convention, I made a commitment to listen to the Alaska Native community, to travel to your villages, to be engaged in your issues. I embraced my appointment to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. I pledged to do everything I can to improve life for Alaska Natives in our most remote traditional communities and as well as our largest cities.

You asked me to help grow the next generation of Native leadership. Let me introduce, once again, Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, from Nome. Megan is my Legislative Assistant in Washington and handles all of my Alaska Native issues.

Jerry Moses served as Senior Counsel on my Indian Affairs Committee staff. Today, Jerry is Washington Representative for ANTHC. Congratulations, Jerry.

I’m using my summer internship program to bring promising high school students from rural Alaska to Washington to allow them to experience all of what happens in the Nation’s capital.

Let me also acknowledge the work of Gerri Sumpter and Bob Walsh.  Gerri, who is a member of the Hoffman family in the YK Delta, manages my office in the Mat-Su. She is one of several staff members who represent me in the YK. Gerri is hardly the next generation. She reminds me that she began her professional career with AFN in 1971. Bob, as you know, is from the Nome area, with a long record of service to rural Alaska. He is my Rural Outreach Coordinator based out of Anchorage.

These commitments come from the heart because I love Alaska. I am the first member of the Alaska Congressional Delegation to have been born in Alaska. I spent my childhood in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, and Anchorage. I attended high school in Fairbanks.

I’ve experienced the history and geography of this great state in a way that only someone who grew up here could. And I know something about the struggles of Alaska’s Native peoples.

As a young girl, I learned about Alberta Schenck’s fight to end discrimination against Natives in Nome by refusing to sit in the “Native section” of the Plaza Theatre.  I learned about Elizabeth Peratrovich and her campaign to bring down discrimination… those terrible derogatory signs that were posted in Southeast. I learned about Molly Hootch’s struggle to end the forced export of our youth to boarding schools in distant places.

I came of age as land claims were settled and was impressed by leaders like Eben Hopson, Willie Hensley, Byron Mallott and Morris Thompson.  The second generation of modern leaders were also so impressive. People like Janie Leask and Julie Kitka. We’re now on the third or perhaps fourth generations of modern Native leadership. People like your keynote speaker Gloria O’Neill and last year’s keynote speaker Elizabeth Hensley who rocked our socks off with her presentation. And the first two Alaskans ever to receive MacArthur Foundation Genius Awards -- Katherine Gottlieb and Sven Haakanson. Both are Alaska Native leaders.  I could not be more excited with the depth of talent on your bench.

Today, I see progress that would not have been possible but for the seeds planted by the first generation of legendary leaders. The power of AFN and all of you who participate in it.  The resilience of our Alaska Native Corporations. The re-emergence of tribal governments. The incredible success of the Indian self determination movement. And the birth of great institutions like the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and First Alaskans Institute.

Yet even as we made giant leaps forward, Alaska’s Native peoples are still fighting for the respect that is rightfully yours as descendants of those who first inhabited this great land. Even now, 50 years after statehood, things have not been made completely right.

I am painfully aware that the Tlingit and Haida people of Southeast Alaska lost their aboriginal lands without compensation – first to create the Tongass National Forest and then at the hands of the US Navy. Thirty nine years after the passage of ANCSA, the Tlingit and Haida people remain disadvantaged to other Alaska Native groups in securing the return of their aboriginal lands. Thirty nine years. This is inexcusable.

I am saddened by the downsizing of villages and the closure of village schools as Native people have relocated into hubs and urban areas. Relocations forced by the high cost of living and limited employment opportunities.

I am troubled – very troubled – to know that villages like Shishmaref, Kivalina and others in Western Alaska may be one storm away from relocating due to coastal erosion.

It is fundamental that Native people should feel safe in their communities, whether they be urban or rural. On July 28, 2009 two young people harassed and assaulted a homeless Native man in Anchorage. This was a powerful reminder that many are not safe in our communities. And it is even more insulting that these two had the audacity to put a videotape of their acts on You Tube. They were rightfully prosecuted by the federal government for their hate crimes against our Native people, but we must do more to prevent such crimes. It is absolutely unacceptable in our State.

In Washington, we are forced to respond to attacks on your success in the 8(a) program.  Senator McCaskill from Missouri says that Native Corporations can’t do anything for Alaska’s Native people. If only she would come to an AFN Convention. Then she would find out the good work our Native Corporations are doing. Paying dividends, making scholarships, working to preserve language and culture. And most importantly, protecting Native land for future generations.

All of these unfortunate situations remind us that we must remain vigilant against those who would try to reverse the progress that’s been made over the last 50 years. No matter how much progress we’ve made, there are still those who seek to undermine the respect you deserve as Alaska’s first peoples. We must stand our ground against bad policies that threaten to send us back.

I have devoted my career in public life to standing up against policies that threaten the survival of Alaska’s first people. As an urban Republican legislator representing Anchorage in the late 1990s I stood with you in your fight to protect rural subsistence. And in Washington I resisted calls to amend ANILCA and eliminate the rural subsistence preference on federal lands.

As a new Senator in 2003, I took a stand for Alaska’s tribes. During the Bush administration there was a serious effort made to remove Alaska tribes from the list of federally recognized Indian tribes. I did not support that effort. We won, they lost. But you need to know that some are still at it. We need to stand up against that.

Ted Stevens was my friend and my mentor. But when I thought he was wrong on Alaska Native policy I told him so. I opposed his appropriations riders which cut off funding for your tribal courts and village law enforcement. This year I passed legislation which repeals those appropriations riders. That will make it possible for the Sitka Tribe and others to once again receive the tribal justice money to which they are entitled.

When my party’s leadership in Washington suggested that I needed to support “English only” legislation, I reminded them that Native languages are American languages – not foreign languages.

Early in the summer of 2009, my party’s leadership asked Republican Senators to oppose an expansion of federal hate crimes legislation. All I needed to do was think back in my mind to the paintball incidents of the 1990s that traumatized our Native people in Anchorage. And I voted to support and to strengthen our federal hate crimes laws. There is no room for hate crimes in our State or our Nation. There is zero tolerance for that.

When my party’s leadership asked me to vote against an expansion of low income energy assistance – LIHEAP – it didn’t take me long. I know what it costs to keep your homes heated. I thought of the difficult conditions throughout rural Alaska and voted my conscience. My conscience said vote for increased LIHEAP funding.

And when the people of Emmonak faced a difficult choice between buying food or fuel, I asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to send additional Indian General Assistance Funds to Emmonak. They did. They listened and they heard.

Let me be clear that I am just as quick to oppose Democrats when they are wrong on issues affecting our Native people.  I continue to oppose Senator McCaskill’s efforts to end the Indian 8(a) program. It’s not just because these preferences benefit Alaska’s tribes and Native Corporations. They benefit all of the federally recognized tribes in the Lower 48 and Native Hawaiian organizations as well.

Senator McCaskill’s attack on Alaska Native Corporations is the first step in ending this program for all Native Americans. The Senator told us that much at the conclusion of the July 2009 hearings in her subcommittee.

I will work with all who are interested in constructive reforms of the 8(a) program, but I demand full consultation in accordance with established federal policies before any changes are instituted. I insist that any such changes be fully vetted, out in the open, in the congressional committees of jurisdiction.

I will not be party to legislating revisions to the 8(a) program without tribal consultation, without appropriate process, behind closed doors and in the dead of night. Because that’s what Senator McCaskill did last year with Section 811. It’s flat out wrong to do that to America’s first people. So we will not let that happen.

When President Obama’s Secretary of Defense moved to cut off the retirement benefits earned by the Alaska Territorial Guard, I worked with Senator Begich to ensure that decision was reversed. In spite of the administration’s opposition, my bill is law and Alaska Territorial Guard members are once again receiving their full pensions.

When Attorney General Eric Holder refused to prosecute former VECO President Bill Allen for corrupting a young woman from Goodnews Bay – over the objections of career prosecutors and law enforcement officials – I demanded to know why. Why would he not help to protect this young woman who had been violated? I’m still waiting for a response from the Attorney General on that.

I have been honored to serve on the Indian Affairs Committee for the entire seven years I have been in the Senate. I was blessed to serve as the Vice Chairman in 2007 and 2008. And I hope to have the opportunity to chair that very important committee at some future point in my Senate career.

The past seven years were a period of tremendous opportunity and achievement in the committee. We overcame attacks from the dental community and saved Alaska’s Dental Health Aide Therapist Program. Then we passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in 2008 by an 83 to 10 margin in the full Senate. So many Alaskans -- Sally Smith, Don Kashevaroff, Valerie Davidson and Myra Munson --worked for more than a decade to get this legislation passed. As the Republican Manager on the Senate floor I was proud to lead their hard work to victory.

I was grateful and humbled that the National Indian Health Board twice honored me for my work in reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Once before final passage, with their lifetime achievement award, and again after final passage in 2010 – at a victory party in the Indian Affairs Committee room.

We talk so much about preserving our Native heritage languages. I was proud to play a role in updating the Native American Languages Act. The new law, named for Esther Martinez, a New Mexico culture bearer, includes amendments that AFN submitted to improve Alaska Native language education. Rosita Worl helped formulate those amendments.

I worked to expand protections for Native women from sexual assault and domestic violence through the Violence Against Women Act. I led hearings into Amnesty International’s finding that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime.  We know that these are not just statistics. They are our friends, our sisters, and our daughters.

I was the lead Republican cosponsor of the Tribal Law and Order Act. President Obama recently signed it into law. That legislation authorizes federal grant funding to support our Village Public Safety Officer Program. It also creates opportunities for VPSOs and Tribal Officers to upgrade their skills.

I continue to work, using my platform in the Indian Affairs Committee, to take the VA to task for ignoring the needs of our Native veterans.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act did many great things for our Native people. But it did not ensure that the generations born after 1971 would be included as shareholders. That decision was left to the original shareholders of each corporation.

One of the most important bills I’ve passed in the last seven years makes it easier for the original shareholders to include those born after 1971 in our corporations.

I keep the needs of our Native people in my mind in all of the other committees on which I serve – the Appropriations Committee, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee.

I’ve used Alaska’s seat on the Appropriations Committee to continue our progress toward eliminating the honeybucket. I’ve fought to fund rural infrastructure projects. I’m fighting to keep the Denali Commission working for us. I’m working to fund fishery disaster payments for Western Alaska and an Arctic policy for the United States. With the growing federal budget deficit, you need a strong voice to protect federal Indian programs, especially the Indian Health Service. I have been that voice for you in Washington, DC.

In the Energy Committee, where I am the Ranking Republican member, I passed legislation making it possible for the Aleut people of King Cove to be able to drive through the Izembek Refuge to the nearest all weather  airport in Cold Bay. For too long the Native people of King Cove have taken the lives into their hands to simply seek medical treatment in difficult weather conditions.  And I’m committed, absolutely committed, to finding a path forward on the Sealaska lands bill and the landless Natives bill for Southeast. We must continue our work on these two most important initiatives.

In the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I have been working to ensure that the No Child Left Behind law does not undermine Native language immersion programs.

These are a few of the ways I’ve been working to honor the commitment I made to you in 2003. It’s mostly hard work. Dry and serious stuff. But there’s a fun side too. Participating in regional cultural events like Camai in Bethel. Being invited up to dance with some of the villages at Quyana, riding four wheelers at St. Paul, reading stories to elementary school classes and always, visiting with people throughout Alaska.

Though we have accomplished a great deal together, there is still much work left to be done.

That brings me to the theme of this gathering – “Village Survival.” Village Survival. This is a critical matter because the survival of our Native villages is inseparable from the survival of our Native people. Our villages are the heart and soul of Alaska. Without you, Alaska as we know it would not exist.

I’ve spoken to this topic in past conversations with you. We have discussed the challenges presented by sudden increases in energy prices. In fact, I held a field hearing in Bethel on the topic. We’ve discussed the outmigration of people out of the villages toward the hubs and cities for jobs and educational opportunities. We’ve talked about alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and family violence and suicide.

Earlier this month in Bethel, I convened a roundtable to discuss the tragic increase in the number of suicides among Alaska Native youth. What I have taken away from this is that we need to do all we can to boost self-esteem among our Native youth. For without our children, we have no future.

There are no simple solutions to any these challenges. But I think we are all in agreement what needs to happen first. Empower Native people to find your own solutions in traditional and culturally appropriate ways. When Native communities are denied the opportunity to address your issues, dependency and hopelessness increase. Self-esteem drops. It is a vicious cycle. The problems become harder and harder to solve. They become the problems of succeeding generations.

I propose that we start by giving our regional Native non-profits and our village tribes the flexibility to spend federal Indian money in the way that makes the most sense locally. If one region decides that it needs to prioritize federal Indian funding toward wellness, as AVCP did before the earmarked funds ran out, it should have the flexibility to do that. If another region wants to put money into job training and economic development it should have the flexibility to do that. Toward this end, I have sponsored the Native American Challenge Demonstration Project bill, which has been endorsed by AFN.

We need to improve communications between village level Native leadership and the Alaska congressional delegation to insure that what we are working on meets your needs.

I propose that the Alaska congressional delegation establish a formal tribal consultation process. I would submit it is high time that every one of our tribal leaders have the opportunity to meet their federal legislators, face to face for meaningful government to government discussions. That’s no small order when you consider that there are more than 225 tribal councils in Alaska.

We should do this both on a regional level and on a statewide level. We can conduct these consultations at AFN; we can do it at the BIA Provider’s Conference and in conjunction with the RurALCAP Providers Conference.  We can do this in conjunction with regional non-profit meetings. We can even use the new technology to do this by videoconference.

We need to bring the tribes, the State of Alaska and federal government together to deal with the perplexing problems of subsistence, child protection and village public safety. We must do all we can to end the adversarial relationship between the State of Alaska and its tribes. We need to be building bridges together.

Subsistence is fundamental to the way of life in rural Alaska. It is the way people work in rural Alaska. It is essential to maintaining self-esteem. It is essential to putting food on the table. It is essential to maintaining Native culture.

That’s why Congress put a rural subsistence preference in ANILCA to begin with. Yet even under the existing rural preference, hunters and fishermen are still subject to a web of bureaucratic federal regulations that undermine your ability to live and thrive in rural Alaska.

The recent federal subsistence review, which led to the addition of two rural seats to the Federal Subsistence Board, is a start, but it is not necessarily a solution. The next step is to conduct subsistence hearings in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.  Through these hearings I hope that we will generate a wider variety of ideas on how to make subsistence work better for all of Alaska’s Native and rural people.

The State of Alaska needs to be a constructive partner in child protection. For decades the State has filed lawsuit after lawsuit challenging the role of villages in child custody and adoptions – only to lose those lawsuits time and again. The State has lost these cases in the Alaska Supreme Court and they have been losing these cases in the federal courts. And the real irony is that State of Alaska has been known to challenge tribal court decisions even when it agrees with the outcome of the tribal court decision.

It’s time to stop the lawsuits and solve the problems. As a senior member of the Indian Affairs Committee, I will work with you to make the Native child protection system work in Alaska.

And third, the State of Alaska must adopt a community policing philosophy if we are ever to see a reduction in violence and bootlegging.  That means using resources in the village to police the village.  It means using tribal courts as an alternative to state courts. And it means culturally appropriate sanctions against offenders to prevent recidivism.

It is time for the federal government, the State and the tribes to get together in a meaningful dialogue on village public safety issues. A dialogue that will lead to empowering every tribal government that wants to undertake the peacemaking responsibility with the jurisdiction and resources to do so. The jurisdiction may be federal jurisdiction, state jurisdiction, tribal jurisdiction or some combination of all of the above. I am prepared to use my seat on the Indian Affairs Committee to make this dialogue happen. I am confident that with the proper training and resources our villages will see significant improvements in safety, without violating anybody’s civil rights.

There’s a final thing that all of us can do to make sure that the State of Alaska listens to its rural people. Get out and vote this November. And vote “Yes” on Ballot Measure #1This is the ballot measure that protects rural representation in the Alaska Legislature following the 2010 census. We need 100% Alaska Native participation in the upcoming election to lift Ballot Measure #1 to passage.

Before I conclude, let me say once again, what a thrill it is to be with you during AFN Week. As much as I enjoy the opportunity to address you from the podium, I look forward to the time we spend one on one at the Crafts Fair, at Quyana, and in the corridors outside of this meeting room. Once again, I extend an open invitation to visit with me, to snap a photo, and share a story. It is these kinds of experiences that make AFN Week so special and so memorable for me each year. Thank you for spending time with me this afternoon. I look forward to visiting with you and hearing what you have to say over the course of the week.

I wish you all the best AFN convention experience ever.

 

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