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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

Kuspuks, beaded moose hide and other Alaska Native regalia filled the Zoom screens as the second day of the country’s largest gathering of Indigenous people continued virtually Friday.

The annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention kicked off the day with a coffee chat between the organization's president, Julie Kitka, and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, followed by talks on energy, national security and the importance of the current census.

“As we navigate this path, there will be more challenges and opportunities that bring new questions. ... We must be bold and lead without fear, while giving daylight to ideas, regardless of how unconventional they might seem,” Sweeney, Iñupiaq, said Thursday.

In line with the convention’s theme of “Good Government. Alaskans Decide,” the Friday morning session was filled with talks from both federal and local government officials.

Douglas Hoelscher, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, read an update from the Trump administration, followed by Dan Brouillette, secretary of the U.S. Energy Department.

They emphasized the growing importance of the Arctic in terms of energy, science and national security. “To be successful, we will need to leverage the knowledge and expertise of Alaskans, especially Native communities,” Brouillette said.

Jeannie Hovland, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans, followed up on Sweeney’s emphasis on efforts to combat the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis.

Robert Wilke, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, highlighted the agency’s efforts to help Alaska Native veterans — a group that serves in the military at a higher rate than any other demographic in the United States.

Benno Cleveland, president of the Alaska Native Veterans Association, gives a speech over zoom. (Photo courtesy of Meghan Sullivan).

“I affirm to you once again that we are committed to honoring tribal sovereignty (and) committed to consulting with tribes before we make decisions that affect tribal governments and citizens,” he said. “I'm inspired by your bravery, by your warrior tradition, by the proud legacy of your forebears. Thank you for your courageous service.”

A panel of seven military officials discussed the changing national security balance in the Arctic, and how this might affect Alaska Native villages in the region. With warming temperatures in America’s northernmost region, new waterways are opening up, enabling other countries such as Russia to expand into the region. The U.S. military is committed to protecting this changing strategic zone, they said, while acknowledging that much of their new, Arctic-based work incorporated “skills that Native Alaskans have known for centuries.”

In an unusual departure from previous conventions, no resolutions were debated or passed this year. Greg Razo, Yup’ik, chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives Resolutions Committee, said resolutions would be passed in December.

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“The AFN board of directors decided to forgo a live debate of the resolutions by delegates this year, due to the various challenges that a virtual convention presents,” he said. The deadline to submit resolutions was Oct. 2, but the committee will be holding a series of Zoom meetings to receive community feedback on the proposed resolutions.

Bringham McCowan, president of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, gave an update on their work, and shared a video of Katelyn Zuray, an Alaska Native maintenance technician from Tanana, who talked about the opportunities the company has provided her.

Donna Bach, a tribal partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Alaska Office and Calista Corporation shareholder, relayed good news about the 2020 U.S. Census: 99.9 percent of the count is complete, which she called a “historic effort despite all of the challenges.”

“Special thanks to the Indigenous language warriors across Alaska, acknowledging the language translation ... to ensure special language guides and translations were available,” she said.

Friday morning’s discussions demonstrated that the Alaska Federation of Natives’ focus on policy was not diminished by the convention’s new format. However, the virtual program still felt extremely different for an event that's as much about community as it is about policy and governance. In the past, the annual convention was known to be a time where friends and family from rural and urban Alaska would reunite, catch up, and celebrate their culture.

This year, viewers could tune in on TV, radio or through the Alaska Federation of Natives’ live webcast. The webcast setup allowed viewers to comment on the different presentations in live time, mirroring the communal and collaborative essence of the typically in-person convention as much as possible.

“Alaska’s Indigenous people have always been present. Our people have endured so much. We are resilient,” commented one Alaska Native viewer, Lisa Tomlinson, during the livestream.

Many comments of quyana, the Yup’ik world for “thanks,” filled the livestream, as viewers expressed their gratitude to the various presenters.

The morning session concluded with a tribute to notable community members who had recently passed away, including Mary Jane Fate, Koyukon Athasbcan; Jacob Anaġi Adams Sr, Iñupiaq; Roy S. Ewan, Athabascan; and Byron Mallot, Tlingit.

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.

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