AFN to focus on ‘good government,’ public safety, services

  • Peter Kaiser of Bethel poses with his lead dogs, Morrow, left, and Lucy in Nome after he won the 2019 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Kaiser is the keynote speaker for the 2019 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention Oct. 17-19 in Fairbanks. (Photo/Marc Lester /Anchorage Daily News)

Thousands of Alaskans are about to converge on Fairbanks for annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention, the largest Native-focused event in the country.

While the event features artisans, performances, exhibitions and awards, a major focus is also on social and governance issues affecting Native communities. The theme this year, “Good Government, Alaska Driven,” will explore what an effective state government that serves of the needs of the people would look like. Delegates also vote on resolutions at the convention that guide AFN’s policy advocacy for the upcoming year.

“The theme sets our convention’s tone and guides the agenda,” said AFN President Julie Kitka in a press release. “AFN is reaching out to all Alaskans to help build an Alaska we all want to live in. That’s going to be a big part of what we discuss this year.”

The two halves of the theme tie to the state government’s fiscal challenges. This year, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy and the Legislature wrestled over the state budget for nearly seven months, disagreeing primarily over school funding, the Permanent Fund dividend, funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System and criminal justice system reform.

Many of the items cut in his preliminary budget heavily affected rural Native communities, such as the Power Cost Equalization program and Medicaid.

The theme seeks to discuss “the basic necessity of sound, fact-based government policy” and “AFN’s position that sensible, long-term and balanced solutions require meaningful Alaskan input through citizen engagement in the democratic process,” according to the press release.

“In 2019, the Dunleavy Administration tested the bounds of this principle,” the conference agenda states. “By example, the governor’s budget and vetoes eliminated (or encumbered) the state’s obligation to provide several constitutionally mandated services. #GoodGovernment requires Alaskans—particularly Alaska Natives—to assess the quality of state government in 2020.”

Following that theme is the ongoing crisis of public safety in rural Native communities. The issue drew national attention this summer when U.S. Attorney General William Barr made a visit to Alaska to investigate the lack of meaningful law enforcement. In July, he declared a public safety emergency and made $6 million immediately available to address the issue, with another $4.5 million to follow.

Barr will return to Alaska for a panel at the convention, scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 17 at 2:10. He will be joined by Republican Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. The panel will explore options to improve public safety in the villages, according to the agenda.

“Despite the best efforts of a number of well-intentioned people, the state has been unable to stand up a sustainable public safety system in rural Alaska,” the agenda states. “This caused U.S. Attorney General William Barr to declare a historic federal law enforcement emergency earlier this summer. To ensure parity between Alaska’s urban and rural public safety systems, the congressional delegation and the state must work with the Native community.”

Another discussion will follow the panel with Barr, Murkowski and Sullivan, the second one specifically focused on safety issues for Alaska Native women and children. U.S. Attorney General for the District of Alaska Bryan Schroder will speak, along with a handful of other law enforcement officials.

The convention kicks off Thursday, Oct. 17, at 8 a.m. at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks with a performance by the Tagiugmiut Dancers. After welcoming remarks from Interior Alaska leaders and the mayors of the City of Fairbanks, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, North Pole and Anchorage, Dunleavy will address the convention at 9:05 a.m. Following Dunleavy, Speaker of the House Rep. Bryce Edgmon will speak.

The keynote speaker this year, Pete Kaiser, doesn’t draw his fame from government. Instead, he drew attention across Alaska for being the first Yup’ik musher to win the Iditarod sled dog race. Kaiser was already known in his hometown of Bethel and in the mushing community as the four-time winner of the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race, but his win in March in Nome brought out celebration among Natives both in Bethel and across the state.

Other discussions on Friday and Saturday will focus on fixes for the Alaska economy, public school funding, the Tribal Child Welfare Compact, economic development, infrastructure, redistricting and unresolved land issues, among other discussions. Throughout the convention, there will be music performances, youth literary readings, dance performances and exhibitions, with delegate discussions and resolution voting on Saturday.

Find a complete agenda online at the Alaska Federation of Natives’ website.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

10/09/2019 - 9:29am