AFN convention packs 'em in – thousands jam Dena'ina

Michael Dinneen/AJOC

The annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention brought thousands of visitors to Anchorage Oct. 17 through Oct. 20, packing the Dena’ina Center in the city’s downtown and restaurants and retail stores.

Besides its main events – an annual review of issues and problems facing rural Alaskans, with a dose of cultural reinforcement – the convention is a huge social event for friends from around the state who often see each other only at the annual convention. Visit Anchorage estimated 3,500 to 4,500 attended the 2012 event, with economic impact of about $6 million. The location of the 2013 convention will be either Fairbanks or Anchorage, with a decision to be made in December.

AFN is also a premier shopping event for those attending. Retail cash registers were ringing around Anchorage as visitors stocked up for the year with items hard to get in remote communities.

As for issues, the convention discussions this year, among other topics, centered on subsistence, maintenance of Alaska Native health services, rural justice and public safety and tribal affairs, and rural energy.

There is a huge concern in the Alaska Native community that federal budget cuts are eating into the Indian Health Service budgets and the ability of the big nonprofit tribal health organizations to provide services.

A lot of worry is also focusing on the “fiscal cliff” Congress faces in January, and whether Indian health services would be exempted from across-the-board spending reductions.

“Indian Health Service isn’t just another federal program. This is a trust responsibility that the federal government has assumed,” said Valarie Davidson of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski told AFN delegates she thinks the fiscal cliff can be avoided. “My sense is that there will be no sequestration (across-the-board cuts). There will be a concentrated effort in the Lame Duck (post-election) session of Congress to find a solution. Health services are already underfunded,” the senator said.

But there are also important wrinkles in health care administration that are of concern to Native leaders and the state’s congressional delegation. One is an interpretation of language in the federal Affordable Health Care Act over the definition of “Indian” that could have the effect, unless corrected, of forcing about 20,000 Alaska Natives out of Indian Health Service coverage and into the private health insurance market.

Murkowski is the ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations Committee and reviews the budgets for U.S. Department of the Interior agencies responsible for Native American programs.

Alaska’s congressman Don Young sat at the podium with Murkowski in the discussion of general concerns with federal programs. Young has represented Alaska in Congress since the early 1970s, and is from Fort Yukon, a rural community. His wife, Lu, was a respected Athabascan who passed away recently.

Young also sits on U.S. House committees and subcommittees that have jurisdiction over the Interior Department.

On health issues, Young said Alaska Natives have to assume more responsibility for looking after their own health, and particularly that of children. “You can’t let your kids drink 8 to 10 cans of soda a day and expect them to be healthy,” Young told the delegations. “And if you drink, it will affect your kids,” he said.

“We can build the most wonderful health facilities, but the Native community has to its part. Health care is a two-way street. It’s not just the federal government,” Young said.

Alaska’s other U.S. Senator, Mark Begich, returning from a trip to Israel, was unable to get to Anchorage in time to sit at the podium with Murkowski and Young Oct. 19 but spoke to the convention the following day, Oct. 20.

Begich acknowledged challenges facing the Indian Health Service but cited a big accomplishment this year in getting the U.S. Veterans Administration to allow Native veterans to get treatment in Alaska’s extensive network of tribal health facilities.

“There’s no reason to send our veterans all the way to Anchorage, or Seattle, when they can often get the care they need in their home community,” Begich said.

The VA has now signed agreements with 25 tribal health organizations from Ketchikan to Kotzebue, which not only improves access to care for veterans but will provide a new source of revenue for the tribal organizations, allowing them to improve care to all they serve, Begich said.

In her speech to the convention, Murkowski said she felt shamed that Native veterans in rural communities have experienced difficulties getting care. Alaska Natives have always served with distinction in the Armed Services and continue to do so, she said.

“There is one, only one, elite airborne brigade in the Alaska National Guard, and a company of this brigade is based in Bethel. It has been deployed for the last year in Afghanistan,” Murkowski said.

On subsistence, the actions by federal fish and wildlife agents to enforce fisheries closures and block subsistence fishing in western Alaska last summer has left sour feelings among rural Alaskans, who no longer believe federal agencies will treat them fairly on subsistence. Agents seized fishing gear, and fish. The actions were taken in connection with widespread failures of salmon runs this summer.

Murkowski said she believes the time is now right for a Senate oversight hearing on federal subsistence, to create a public record that can be used to improve the system. Federal agencies had asked Murkowski to hold off on a hearing until more time had passed, but the senator said the recent western Alaska actions, and the seizure of Native art using feathers from a nonendangered species – a raven and a deceased one at that – means the time for a hearing is now.

“These are well-intentioned people going out to provide for their families and to create art, but these laws are being interpretated in ways that make them criminals,” Murkowski told the AFN delegates.

The unraveling of Native support for federal subsistence management is the latest chapter of this issue. For years Native leaders have pressed for rural and local Alaska Native preference on hunting and fishing but urban sports hunting and fishing groups blocked a state constitutional amendment that would have done that, leading to the federal takeover of fisheries management on federal lands across the state.

Alaska Natives supported that, until this year at least.

11/11/2016 - 4:00pm