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Morales and hundreds of tribal leaders in historic Alaska meeting

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Hundreds of tribal leaders will travel to Alaska later this month for a historic meeting with Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Morales, Bolivia;s first fully indigenous head of state, was elected in 2006. This will be his first trip to Alaska.

The event will be hosted by the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council (AI-TC), with organizational help from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the National Tribal Environmental Council (NTEC).

Morales will be visiting Alaska at the invitation of the AI-TC, said AI-TC Chairman Mike Williams.

''We have invited President Morales to come up here to meet with the Alaska tribes. The tribes requested that this past summer and he said yes.''

Details and logistics of the visit have not been worked out yet, but the visit will take place on Sept. 20.

The visit will be another step in a global trend among indigenous peoples everywhere to forge unity and solidarity in their continuous efforts to protect their inherent sovereignty and their human and civil rights. Such efforts have accelerated since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on Sept. 13, 2007.

Morales' visit will enhance his knowledge about Native issues in the U.S. and highlight indigenous issues internationally, Williams said.

''We have scheduled a private meeting with tribal leaders from all over the country and we have public events scheduled, including the signing of a declaration. There are issues that we've been dealing with for a long time in the areas of climate change, economic development, health, education, environmental issues, language and cultural preservation, and many other issues that affect us every day in our villages and our homes throughout the nation,'' Williams said.

The Alaska Inter-Tribal Council is a statewide, tribally-governed non-profit organization that advocates in support of Alaska's 229 tribal governments throughout the state.

All of Alaska's tribal governments have been invited to attend the meeting with Morales, as well as all the inter-tribal leaders from the northwest tribes, the Arizona Inter-Tribal Council, leadership from the NCAI, NTEC, the United Southern and Eastern Tribes, and other tribal leaders.

One of the most pressing issues facing Alaska Natives and other indigenous peoples is development, Williams said.

''The multinational corporations want to drill in the outer continental shelf in the north and other areas that are of vital interest to the Alaska Native people. We really depend upon the sea and the ocean for our sustenance with marine mammals and the bullhead whale and other species that our people depend on to survive every day, and the thought of a disaster, God forbid, when the ice is running. ... Cleaning up in the Arctic is next to impossible, or impossible.''

But the problem of development is not unique to Alaska's indigenous communities, Williams noted.

''Throughout the world mining and industrial development is occurring and it has been a subject of discussion in our Native communities and it has had a detrimental effect on our way of life and that has been the story told over and over by indigenous peoples about those companies leaving toxic waste and pollution. Very little benefit goes to the people after promises of prosperity, but we are trying to address a lot of those issues,'' he said.

Another major issue facing indigenous communities is the dwindling supply of clean water as pollution spreads and sources of clean water become increasingly commodified throughout the world.

''Water is the key to our survival.''

There is a great deal of admiration for Morales, Williams said.

''I have admired President Morales work in Bolivia because he is indigenous and he's the president of a country right now and he is an inspiration to all of us in how he succeeded in making changes and reversing the trends for the best interests of our indigenous peoples,'' Williams said.

On Nov. 7, 2007, less than two months after the UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, Bolivia became the first country in the world to adopt the declaration as law when Morales announced the passage of National Law 3760, or the Rights of Indigenous peoples, legislation that is an exact copy of the UN declaration.

The UN declaration affirms Native peoples' right to preserve their respective political, social, economic, juridical and cultural institutions. It also assures their rights to full participation in the political, cultural, economic and social spheres of their countries, and recognizes their rights to self-determination.

Williams said that the declaration provides ''a base, finally,'' for indigenous peoples to begin to address their common issues including the loss of lands and resources on an international level.

''I want my brothers and sisters down in Indian country to know since we've dealt with the same issues for many years that it's time to work on these issues collectively,'' Williams said.

The event marks not only Morales' first visit to Alaska, but also the first time so many tribal leaders from the lower 48 states will visit.

''It's going to be an exciting time. This is a once in a life time opportunity and a historic event in Alaska and I hope to work with the rest of the tribal leaders from throughout the nation to continue to work on the issues that the Native American Rights Fund has battled in courts. We have battled for our existence. It's a continuous battle and it's been going on for 500 years. So we have a lot of issues to work on and I think this event is going to make a really huge impact,'' Williams said.