Alaskans from across the state met on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage over the weekend to talk about the transition to a new governor’s administration. The process itself was unusual, a crowded, open forum about ideas.
But even more rare: The depth of participation by Alaska Native leaders, chairing several key committees, participating on panels, and having a say in what happens next.
The co-chair for the Gov.-elect Bill Walker and Lt. Gov-elect Byron Mallott is Ana Hoffman, executive and president of the Bethel Native Corp. and co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives. She read a statement Sunday said the public transition process was designed as a “collaboration” and “to create a vision for Alaska.”
That vision represents a significant shift. Starting with this sentence: “We should identify best practices and utilize tribal structures to capture the values in our state,” Hoffman reported.
Think about that for a minute. In a state where the idea of Native governance has been reduced to only a for-profit corporate model, the new leaders’ of the state are talking about using tribal structures to improve values and lives. In other words: Tribal governments matter. Even in Alaska.
Hoffman’s articulation of the transition principles carried forth some other radical notions.
— That Medicaid expansion can lead to self-sufficiency (as well as improved health care). This is exactly right. Medicaid dollars for the Alaska Native medical system, like the Indian health system in other states, is funded by federal dollars. That means more health care dollars; a bigger pie.
— “We have covered the entire spectrum from education to oil and gas and we recognize there are greater economic development opportunities ahead for Alaska,” Hoffman said.
— And, I love this, the document says, “We all agree to put fish first.”
This is how it should be. In a world where fish come first, there is a natural order, a sanctity of life, and a guarantee of clean water and health families.
Gov.-elect Walker praised Craig Fleener who had been his running mate until the fusion ticket came together with Mallott. Fleener, Athabascan, is a former deputy commissioner of Fish and Game and has worked for tribal governments. “This is the guy,” Walker said describing their conversation when he asked him to withdraw from the ballot. “He said, ‘OK. But you had better win.’ Without that, Byron and I would not be standing here today.”
The biggest challenge for the new state administration is economic. Alaska is a funny state; operating like some tribal governments where oil and gas contribute more dollars than taxes. (And like tribal governments, Alaskans want to protect their version of per capita, the Permanent Dividend Fund. This year that’s more than $1,800.) Many of the state budgets were written when oil was more than $100 a barrel and it’s now around $80 — a significant revenue drop.
“Yes, I wish oil wasn’t at $75 or whatever it is,” Walker said Sunday. “But, you know, it is. And there is nothing we can do about that ourselves. We are going to work our way out of this because we’re Alaskans. … We’re going to turn this state into a future that’s very bright.”
Walker and Mallott will be sworn into office on December 1 in Juneau. Mallott told me he plans to be sworn-in wearing his tunic, representing the KwaashKiKwaan Clan of the Raven tribe.
I can’t think of a better metaphor for the new administration.
Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.