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AFN speech - Senator Begich - Rural Alaska Hub launched


Following is the text of Senator Begich's AFN speech - as prepared for delivery. The speech was accompanied by a photo slide show.

As part of the speech, Senator Begich announced his new Rural Alaska Hub on his website. Check it out at www.begich.senate.gov

Senator Mark Begich - remarks

Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention

11:40 a.m.; Oct. 22, 2011; Dena'ina Center, Anchorage

(As prepared for delivery; text accompanied by photo slide show)

Theme:  Strength in Unity

Good morning. It's great to be here with you this morning.

Allow me to first recognize Dorothy Cook and representatives of Eklutna. Thank you for hosting us on your traditional land.

One of my proudest achievements as mayor of Anchorage was working with local Alaska Native leaders and naming this impressive convention center in honor of the First People of the region.

When we named the Dena'ina Center, I didn't know I would be dancing onstage with many of you during Quyana Night. I hope the pictures don't get out.

Thanks also to AFN President Julie Kitka, Co-Chairs Senator Albert Kookesh and Ralph Andersen, the entire AFN Board of Directors and all the staff who make this extraordinary event happen each year.

To you, the delegates, it is always an honor to join you. It is hard to believe this is my ninth year participating in the convention-first as Anchorage mayor and now as your United States Senator.

As mayor of Alaska's largest city, I took every opportunity to show our community and the entire state the interconnected relationship between rural and urban Alaska.

When rural Alaska is thriving, urban Alaska does, too.

I have carried this deep commitment to rural Alaska with me to the Senate. I am grateful to have former Bethel Mayor Tiffany Zulkosky as my Rural Director.

During the nearly three years I have been your senator, we have partnered together to accomplish many great things. Just as this year's convention theme states, there is strength in unity.

By working together, we have delivered nearly 2 billion-dollars - the highest amount per capita of any state - to communities all throughout Alaska through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That's 2 billion reasons the Recovery Act was a good idea.

The Recovery Act continues to fund many sorely needed projects, creating hundreds of Alaska jobs, and providing tax relief to working Alaskans. One of the most significant projects was full funding - 152 million-dollars - for the new Nome hospital.

The project has injected millions of dollars in wages into the Norton Sound region, created long lasting jobs, and will triple the size of Nome's current health care facilities.

Speaking of health care, I was proud to work to secure the first comprehensive, permanent authorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in nearly two decades.

As the national health reform bill was being considered in the Senate last year, I helped a few of my colleagues team up on Majority Leader Harry Reid on the Senate floor. We told him that we could not have health reform without also ensuring quality health care is available for our nation's First People.

He agreed and I was honored to support final passage of this vital reauthorization - which is finally bringing the Indian Health Service into the 21st century.

Of course, health care is a vital for every resident of Alaska's villages.

Which is why in August I brought the Federal Communications Commission chairman to New Stuyahok (Stew-yuh-hawk) to visit the local village clinic.

Thanks to Community Health Aide Practitioner Gloria Hanson and her demonstration of the telemedicine cart, Chairman Genachowski saw first-hand the incredible technologies of our rural health delivery system.

I'm also happy my ears were healthy.

A funny thing happened to us while in New Stew. We were celebrating the new 100 million-dollar broadband project funded by the Recovery Act.

They were driving us around town in the back of a police car - which somehow we got locked in to.

Talk about having a captive audience. I'll certainly remember that trick on every trip from now on.

[Photo 12: Cabinet Secretaries in Bethel]

It is with a unified message that we have brought a dozen of President Obama's top people - cabinet secretaries and heads of important federal agencies, like FCC Chairman Genachowski - to Alaska to see our needs first-hand.

We didn't have to lock Veterans Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki into a police car to have him visit rural Alaska. In fact, he jumped onto a 4-wheeler like an old pro.

As a member of the Senate Veterans Committee, I invited Secretary Shinseki to see for himself the challenges rural Alaska veterans face when seeking health care and other benefits.

We visited the coastal village of Kwigillingok

(Kwig-ill-ing-gok), where we toured the local clinic and he helped me honor surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard.

From that visit I secured his support to ensure rural veterans receive care close to home instead of traveling hundreds or thousands of miles.

At a veterans listening session here earlier this morning, I renewed my commitment to passing the Alaska Heroes Card Act - a bill I introduced that allows rural veterans to use VA benefits at their local clinics and hospitals.

And it is through a unified effort, we have fought off misguided attempts to restrict the economic benefits our Native corporations deliver to Alaskans through the 8(a) program.

Although a frustrating battle, every day I work with the rest of the delegation to protect Alaska Native Corporations' participation in the Small Business Administration 8(a) program.

My colleagues on both sides of the aisle have targeted this program unfairly and continue to wage their attacks both behind closed doors in Congress and through sensationalist stories in the media.

Despite these tactics, I will continue to fight for the 8(a) program with facts. Which is why I worked with the UAA Institute for Social and Economic Research to produce a detailed, eye-opening report on the benefits of the 8(a) program to shareholders.

That is why I will continue to bring Alaska's 8(a) leaders in front of Congress to say directly how the program is helping to achieve the economic freedom envisioned 40 years ago through ANCSA.

That is why we have successfully fended off numerous amendments during meetings in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee to gut the 8(a) program.

There is no question, we have accomplished much by working together. But, sadly this year's convention theme - "Strength in Unity" - speaks to what seems like a forgotten value in Washington these days.

Deep partisanship nearly brought the federal government to a standstill earlier this spring. Political gridlock means addressing Alaska's needs will be even more challenging, as we've already seen with a ban on earmarks and increased competition for federal dollars.

But as Elizabeth Medicine Crow-Vice President of First Alaskans Institute, originally of Kake-reminds us, cooperation and collaboration is an asset the Alaska Native community has had for generations. And it can be seen through the cultural tradition of subsistence.

When the time comes each year, there are no questions about the need to work together to put away fish, berries, and meat for the winter months. Families and friends work like a well-oiled machine to ensure their spiritual and physical needs are met.

As your senator, my job is providing you the tools and resources you need to address problems at the local level, where you know best the solutions that work.

But I cannot do this without your collaboration and wisdom.

Using testimonials and photos from Alaskans, we fought off misguided efforts to eliminate Essential Air Service and saved more than 12 million-dollars for 44 Alaska communities.

By receiving your comments and resolutions, I was able to use my seat on the Government Affairs Committee - which has jurisdiction over post offices - to ensure 31 village post offices considered for closure will remain open for business.

Thanks to all of you Facebook-ers, we gathered photos from more than 50 communities around Alaska showing the high price of fuel.

It is important my colleagues hear your voices in the hallways of the nation's Capitol and we are finding new ways to share your story.

I want to maintain this connection with you every day, so I'm launching a new feature on my website, called the "Rural Alaska Hub."

This website is a tool for rural Alaskans to stay in constant communication with me about the challenges you face and the solutions you want to see enacted.

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passage of ANCSA, I share your frustration with the battles we're fighting, some old and some new.

I hear loud and clear, in every community I visit, that we must protect subsistence rights. That is why, at AFN's request, I have asked the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold an oversight hearing on subsistence management in Alaska.

I have said many times I do not support No Child Left Behind. One size fits all education fits nowhere in Alaska. We must provide high quality education for all Alaska children.

I recently introduced a bill, with dedicated funds to support innovative education ideas in rural areas, that was included in the overhaul of No Child Left Behind. We must invest federal education dollars to support - not suppress - local innovation.

This same philosophy - supporting local control and innovation - guided my introduction of the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act. No longer should village residents go without public safety.

If passed, this bill would seek to improve public safety by strengthening tribal courts. I thank AFN for their strong endorsement of this bill.

It is also why I continue to fight for the Denali Commission. The last two years have been hard. Federal spending cuts and earmarks bans have hurt, but the Commission is focusing on supporting new ideas to build sustainable communities.

It is investment in emerging energy technologies will help thousands of rural Alaskans cut their energy costs. I am glad another 6 million-dollars in federal funds was just awarded to support these efforts.

There is no question the role of federal government in Alaska is changing. The political climate in Washington, D.C., and across the country is changing. So the way we work to accomplish our vision for Alaska must also change.

Rest assured, you have a congressional delegation working hand-in-hand to advocate for Alaska's unique needs.

While people may be wringing their hands, I'm not. One thing I know is that Alaska Native people have the strength and ability to adapt.

As I spoke with many young Native leaders last night and celebrated their many successes, I heard confidence and hope for the future.

I saw a renewed energy to build on the strength and wisdom of those leaders who forged the path that brought us to where we are today.

Like those leaders who we lost in the last year - Dr. Walter Soboleff, Athabascan elder Hannah Solomon, Yup'ik educator Caleb Pungowiyi (Pung-gow-wee) - and the many leaders who are here today.

Let me also honor a great Native leader from Fort Yukon who was just with us in Washington three days ago.

Chief Clarence Alexander was selected from more than 6,000 nominees to be one of just 13 Americans nationwide to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Obama.

Chief Alexander was selected for his work with tribal governments and for helping clean up the Yukon River.

Please join me in commending Chief Alexander for his great work and for honoring all Alaskans.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to work with many of you over the last two decades and am inspired by the talent and commitment of those who will lead the Alaska Native community into the next two decades.

I want to thank you for your support. The support that elected me to this office, and the support I receive from you every day as I fight for Alaska in Washington.

I am honored to be your partner and look forward to another year of sharing stories, sharing meals, sharing ideas and sharing dreams to build a stronger, united Alaska Native community.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to join you and have a great convention.



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