WASHINGTON - In 1966, a young Athabascan Native rights advocate named Emil Notti wrote a letter to the editor of a small Alaskan newspaper calling for increased cohesion among Native groups. Readers responded, and the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) was formed shortly thereafter.
The AFN's mission is to "enhance and promote the cultural, economic and political voice of the entire Alaska Native community," according to its Web site.
In 2003 the AFN, still one of Alaska's most venerated Native rights organizations, continues to hold fast to its ideals of autonomy and free will for Alaska Natives and all indigenous peoples.
Recently, the AFN extended its hands across a continent and an expanse of ocean to invite other indigenous peoples of the United States to attend a two-day self-determination forum in Washington, D.C.
Formally called the National Forum on the Goals and Aspirations of the Indigenous Peoples of the United States, the event was attended by Alaska Natives, American Indians from the Lower 48, Native Hawaiians, members of the Senate Native American caucus, congressional leaders and senior members of the Bush administration.
Other forum sponsors included the Alaska Intertribal Council, Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA), National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Gaming Association, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Smithsonian National Museum.
The forum was held on May 13 and 14; its goals were to "enable greater self-determination for Alaska Natives, American Indians and Native Hawaiians" and provide an "overview of Native issues related to health, education and the economy," according to the forum agenda.
"What we attempted to do was position discussion of self-determination in the larger context of what democracy is all about," said AFN President Julie Kitka, a Chugach Eskimo. "It was a very successful conference."
Interest and involvement among individual members of Native communities is vital in attaining true self-determination, Kitka said.
"National Indian policy is influenced by the individuals and people involved and their interest in getting things done," she said. "Individuals really can make a difference."
Kitka said the forum's attendees focused on what she described as the "three pillars" of self-determination: education, health care and economic development.
"If we want to strengthen self-determination, we have to strengthen all three of those areas," Kitka said.
CNHA President Robin Tanner concurred with Kitka's recognition of the three pillars. "Sovereignty and self-determination are tied to education, health care, economic development and housing affordability," Tanner said.
Kitka said Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians share remarkably similar recent histories: both areas were American colonies and non-self governing territories before becoming states; the United States purloined or purchased both areas without Native counsel or consent; both Alaska and Hawaii have large military presences; and both became states in 1959, within seven months of one another.
Tanner agreed with Kitka's assessment.
"Native Hawaiians, American Indians and Alaska Natives all share striking commonalities," she said. "But Alaska and Hawaii share some special similarities."
All America's Native peoples have aspirations, problems and solutions in common, Tanner said.
"We are unique people with unique cultures, but many of our challenges and solutions are similar," she said. "It's a powerful opportunity to learn from one another."
CNHA will hold its annual conference on Aug. 27 - 30. Hawaiian Sens. Akaka and Inouye will be there. American Indian and Alaska Native representatives are encouraged to attend, Tanner said.
A highpoint came when the Senate passed S. 344, the Native Hawaiian Recognition Bill, during the forum. The bill will ensure Native Hawaiian self-governance and land retention and affirm a federal trust responsibility and special relationship between Native Hawaiians and the U.S. government comparable to that of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Tanner said the forum was an empowering and unifying experience.
"You don't feel alone," she said. "You feel strengthened, and that's powerful energy."
Kitka said the next steps on the journey toward self-determination are additional discussions, more forums, the dissemination of fact sheets for indigenous peoples and an increased political voice.
"Our ultimate goal is to try to convince and encourage the president to come out with a message supporting self determination in the next phase," she said.
The forum was an immensely positive experience, but true self-determination will require more work, Kitka said.
"It was just the first step," she said.
While unfinished business may still lie ahead, the forum afforded all of America's indigenous peoples an opportunity to join hands and briefly share a vision of democracy and self-determination for all.