Alaska state legislators reversed line item vetos made last month by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, whittling down cuts of $444 million to just $23 million on July 30. But the governor has threatened to wield his veto pen all over again.
The same day, at a Native forum across town, Yup’ik, Inupiaq, Sugpiaq, Tlingit, and Haida leaders from across the state described the challenges cuts pose and shared elders’ stories about facing life’s hardships. The 60-some participants in the forum included elders, educators, and representatives of advocacy, non-profit and for-profit entities.
While it’s not clear where the ax will fall this go-around, Alaska Natives are feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by the extent of the initial cuts, which forum participants called “reckless,” and “neglectful,” and which many people said disproportionately targeted Alaska Native people.
Richard Peterson, Tlingit, is president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which represents 32,000 tribal citizens. He said for the sake of negotiations, he’s trying to quiet his “angry voice” but it’s hard because the well-being of his people is threatened.
“This isn’t an issue of Democrat or Republican but an issue of this administration has really kind of declared war on Alaska. And the ones who are going to feel that crunch especially are rural Alaskans,” said Peterson.
He said villagers are already in a state of crisis over energy costs. He’s seen people forced to leave their way of life. “If you have to move to an urban area because your electric bill is three, four hundred a month, and it costs a few hundred dollars to fly in for medical or groceries, that’s not a choice.”
“Those of us who are Native, we come from our villages,," Peterson said. "We may live in urban places … but we know what it is to struggle in our villages."
Melissa Borton, Sugpiaq, is tribal administrator for the Village of Afognak, near Kodiak. She said cuts in ferry services, with fewer trips to communities, will have a big impact in her part of the state.
The state ferry Tustemena travels from Homer to Kodiak to the Aleutian chain islands. Borton says the Tustemena makes it possible for people to stay in their home villages, which are accessible only by boat or plane.
“Three of our village communities do not have stores. People come to Kodiak twice a week to go grocery shopping, to bring in recyclables, to have medical appointments. It’s huge.”
While the challenges are scary, she said, “What I know is we have to come together, we have to speak as one and we have to do what’s right for our people.”
Verne’ Boerner, Inupiaq, president and CEO of the Alaska Native Health Board, said the governor’s $50 million cut to Medicaid would have had far-reaching effects. She said the tribal health system provides services to thousands of non-Natives, saving the state money. Boerner said tribal health supports five percent of Alaska’s economy with 18,000 jobs and more than a billion dollars in revenue — two billion with the multiplier effect.
If the state’s cuts to Medicaid go through, the state will lose federal matching funds. And that isn’t the state’s money to take away said Boerner. Federal funds for health services were negotiated in exchange for “our riches, the riches of our land, the riches of our people.” The agreement was that Alaska Natives were “to have access to these critical services that we need for our health,” said Boerner. “They are not based on a time limit, on ability to pay, but in perpetuity: as long as the wind blows, the grass grows and the rivers flow.”
Several people commented on the potential loss of the early eduction program Headstart. It too may disappear from rural Alaska because the loss of state funding also means the loss of federal funds.
AlexAnna Salmon, Yup’ik, tribal administrator of the village of Igiagik, on the Alaska Peninsula, said she remembers stories elders told her as a child about how her people survived hard times, especially stories of success against great odds.
“The ultimate favorite story for them to tell was how our people survived starvation time. Starvation was a real factor even in their own upbringing, and then it was a real factor in how our people moved in southwest Alaska. It was a real factor in governance, in how they maintained the people, and the values, and their governing structure.”
“I think about what’s happening with the state government, and to me it spells it’s starvation time for Alaska Natives,” said Salmon.
She said Alaska Native people can take elders’ guidance and translate it to modern times. For instance, she said, heed the advice that hard times will come and always be in the process of getting ready.
Salmon said amid negative news at the federal and state level that bring home the fact that Alaska Natives are subject to the whims of whoever is in power, “These stories keep us grounded.”
Salmon also reminds herself of advice her mother gave her when she was new to tribal administration and handling a million-dollar grant. Her mother saw she was frightened and worried about her village’s future. “My mother would tell me, ‘We came from nothing and we are not afraid to go back there.’”
“And I knew that we felt like the richest people on earth,” Salmon continued. “So what does it mean to come from nothing? Well, 25 years before I stepped into the [tribal] administration, our people were working for free. They kept our tribe going out of volunteerism. Because tribal governance was so important, our people kept buildings open with nothing in return except the well being of their people.”
Participants were asked to discuss a series of questions and reported back dozens of thoughts and ideas to the larger group on what it is most important to accomplish, actions to take, and the legacy they want to leave their descendants.
Central Council of Tlingit and Haida's Peterson began the forum by saying he’s angry. In his closing remarks, he said, “I’m leaving with hope. We’re not victims. We’ve been here ten thousand years. We have the collective knowledge, the wisdom to lead ten thousand more.”
Facilitator Liz Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida, president and CEO of the non-profit foundation, First Alaskans Institute, wrapped up the meeting by telling participants: “Remember this is our home. We aren’t going anywhere. The state of Alaska needs us. Tell the state of Alaska ‘You can do better and you should do better.’”
The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, First Alaskans Institute, Native Peoples Action, and Sealaska sponsored the Native issues forum.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a longtime Alaska journalist.