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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Before the pandemic, the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention had grown from a couple of hundred participants in 1966 to an estimated five or six thousand in recent years. With delegates from tribes, for-profit corporations and nonprofit regional organizations in attendance, it was the country's largest representative Native American gathering.

Because travel in Alaska is so expensive, people would make the most of being in Anchorage or Fairbanks by piggybacking and wedging in other meetings, shopping and visits with friends. The federation arts and crafts fair, with its hundreds of vendors’ booths, was renowned — some artists made the bulk of their annual income there.

This year’s convention has an entirely different dynamic.

It’s all virtual, meaning no getting together and being part of a large, in-person and predominantly Native crowd, which no doubt brought people comfort and joy in years past.

Still, the event is getting through its main business of addressing issues facing Alaska Natives. Delegates will learn about and discuss issues then adopt resolutions that direct the advocacy, educational and other work of the Native federation’s staff.

As in other years, the agenda is filled with sessions on everything from justice, public safety, awards and business, to health, national security and broadband access.

This year’s theme is “Good Government: Alaska Natives Decide.”

The keynote speaker was House Speaker Brice Edgmon, Yup’ik, of Dillingham. He is the state’s first Alaska Native House speaker. He honored ancestors’ resilience in surviving the 1918 Influenza epidemic, which devastated his home region of Bristol Bay. 

He described the difficulty of drawing legislators’ attention and state resources to rural Alaska, and the importance of unity, participation and of voting in effecting change. Like several other speakers, he emphasized the importance of getting counted in the U.S. Census ending Thursday at midnight Hawaiian time.

He mentioned Alaska Native leaders who were his role models and mentors, including former mayor and legislator Reggie Joule, Inupiaq, of Kotzebue, who told Edgmon, "Just remember, in politics, it doesn't have to make sense," advice Edgmon said kept him sane.

He said Native leaders will come to the fore again.

“In the future, Alaska Natives leaders will play a more prominent role in all levels of government in Alaska. We will have an Alaska Native governor, state Senate president, U.S. congressman, and U.S. senator. I know that time is coming.”

The Native federation gave part of the lunch hour to a fundraiser for the Alaska Innocence Project, which has a list of 150 disproportionately Alaska Native cases of alleged wrongful conviction — much more than its staff of one can handle. Bill Oberly does have one great success story: the 2015 freeing of four Native men wrongly convicted of murder.

Known as the Fairbanks Four, the men were arrested in their late teens and held in prison for 18 years. Even after the confession of someone else already in prison for another murder conviction, their release was not a foregone conclusion and didn’t come immediately.

In a video, one of the Fairbanks Four was shown telling their story.

Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and George Frese, also known as The Fairbanks Four, celebrate their first day together as free men, Dec. 17, at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall in Fairbanks.

“I can tell you that first night in prison was the worst. ... I was probably one of the nicest kids around and going to prison for murder. It destroyed a part of me,” said Marvin Roberts, Athabascan.

"Thank you for giving my life back. I pray you get all the help you need to help others get their lives back," Roberts said to Alaska Project Innocence Director Bill Oberly, who says the Fairbanks Four case shows there is a "different justice system for Natives.”

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Political leaders get a chance every year to address the audience. Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski countered recent charges that she talks up her opposition to a huge proposed mine in western Alaska but doesn’t act when she could to ensure it doesn’t happen.

That’s not so, said Murkowski. "I have been clear from the start that I oppose the Pebble Mine. It's the wrong mine in the wrong place.” She said she’s going to be working on legislation that would provide permanent protection of the headwaters that support the Bristol Bay fishery.

Murkowski was the sponsor of Savanna’s Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law on Saturday. That and the Not Invisible Act will help combat high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, she said. She said she is planning some amendments to the Violence Against Women Act that will help Alaska Natives.

Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tara Katuk Mac Lean Sweeney spoke at the 2020 Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

Murkowski criticized court rulings that exclude Alaska Native corporations from federal COVID relief funds, described her role in land swaps for resource development, and her support for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. She noted that next year she will acquire a leadership role in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr spoke to the convention via a pre-recorded video. He said, “I think that in the past Native communities have been faced with the intolerable choice of either moving to cities for law enforcement protection and risk breaking apart or staying in place without protection and continuing to fend for yourselves.

“This is unacceptable,” he said.

Barr, who visited rural Alaska in June 2019, said Natives deserve the fundamental right to live according to their heritage and longstanding traditions, and to freely pursue happiness.

“Alaska is home to some of the most remote communities in all of America. This geographic isolation contributes to law enforcement adversities not seen elsewhere in our nation,” Barr said. “I believe the Department of Justice is here to fully serve every single citizen, no matter who they are, no matter where they reside. Asking for basic physical security is not too much to ask."

From left to right, an unidentified police officer, Village Public Safety Officer John Pleasant, and an unidentified man, during a 2019 visit by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to the western Alaska village of Napaskiak. Barr called public safety in rural Alaska an ‘emergency.’ (Photo courtesy of Association of Village Council Presidents; File)

Barr, Association of Village Council Presidents CEO Vivian Korthis, Justice Department U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska Bryan Schroder, and FBI Agent in Charge for the Anchorage Office Robert Britt described a range of actions taken to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous persons.

Those include:

  • Development of a guide for that communities can use to make sure that if they have a person go missing they have a guide that will make sure all the right agencies are involved and all the available resources are put into play

  • Creation of a task force made up of representatives of the Anchorage Police Department, the Village Public Safety Officer program, state troopers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and others to put together a protocol that will help law enforcement agencies work together on responding to these cases

  • An offer for communities to call on the FBI for assistance from child abduction rapid deployment teams, analysis of violent crimes, behavioral analysis, child abduction, cell phone support teams, evidence response teams, victims’ services and more.

Another Native leader, Assistant Secretary of Interior Tara Katuk Mac Lean Sweeney, Inupiaq, speaking live via video, pledged: "Under my leadership, Indian affairs will remain steadfast in its efforts to strengthen safety in our communities, to find our missing people, to bring justice to murder victims and closure to their survivors, to close the digital divide, to preserve our languages and to continue upholding our trust and treaty obligations for all American Indians and Alaska Natives."

The Native convention continues Friday. For details on how to view or hear it via the internet, television or radio, click here.

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Corrected to show the convention ends Friday evening, and the spelling of Tara Katuk Mac Lean Sweeney.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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