Tribal Leaders Gathering to Meet with Obama

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington

Alaska Native tribal leaders are gathering Thursday in Washington for the Tribal Nation’s Conference with President Obama. Each of the country’s 565 federally recognized tribes was invited to send a representative. This is the second time the Obama White House has hosted such an event – the first was one year ago. And it’s the first administration to hold them on such a scale. Marvin Kelly, on the Emmonak Tribal Council, says he hopes this year

Alaska’s voice is heard loud and clear.

“There’s more representation from Alaska, more people,” Kelly says. “So hopefully, with all the other voices form the village, we’ll be able to bring out our concerns in a stronger voice.”

Kelly says his top issue is getting help dealing with the high costs of living and transportation in rural Alaska. Kelly attended the summit last year, and says since then, the Obama Administration did help out – by sending some of the Stimulus money to his community for building projects.

“A little bit,” he says. “You know like in Emmonak the Recovery Act, or the ARRA, we got six homes there. But you know, we probably would’ve gotten more homes if the cost of transportation would be less. Because it’s so high. Probably 50% is shipping.”

Kelly also wants the federal government to help in the battle tribes are waging with the state over subsistence fishing and hunting rights.

That’s also on the mind of Mike Williams, who’s on Akiak’s Tribal Council.

“The US has a trust obligation to protect the first people of Alaska,” Williams says. “And there are 229 federally recognized tribes. And help change that some of those policies that are hurting us, that we’re struggling with. We’ve been made criminals to hunt and fish in our own lands. That’s not right.”

Williams’ family suffered a tragedy this month when his granddaughter committed suicide. He says the Obama Administration can help address the problems of depression and suicide by giving the tribes more control and power.

“I think right now with the issue of jurisdiction,” Williams says. “The state of Alaska has been fighting us in courts, dealing with our alcohol issues in our communities, control of criminal matters in community. And that’s the biggest problem that we see as tribal leaders. We can do something about it. But we’re always at odds with the state of Alaska.”

Williams says the first and foremost thing the Obama Administration can do for Native people throughout the country is to sign on to the United Nations Declaration for Indigenous Rights.

That’s exactly what Edward Alexander, Second Chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government in Fort Yukon wants to see. He says it would send an important message internationally – and at home.

“Especially for those of us from Alaska, we know how important that is, when we deal with a government that doesn’t recognize our existence,” he says. “Hopefully that will strengthen our position, and let people know we have a right to our unique language and heritage. We’re turning the page. President Obama did a restart on foreign relations with Russia and the rest of the world, and I think signing the UN Declaration would be a restart for relations with Indigenous people. For 500 years we’ve been waiting for a restart, so it’s a good thing.”

Alexander also wants to see President Obama create a cabinet level position for Native American issues.

“If there were any other group with 60-70% unemployment would have cabinet position. If any other group that faces all the serious challenges Native America faces, there would be a cabinet position. There are extensive problems, having low-level administrators not going to cut it anymore I don’t think.”

The idea of having a cabinet level position on Native issues has long been championed by Alaska Congressman Don Young, a Republican, who says he’s still pushing for it. Young and Alaska’s two senators talked with the tribal leaders today at welcome meeting hosted by the Congressional delegation at the Capitol.

While all three expressed optimism at tomorrow’s White House summit, Young said he wants to see concrete items come out of it. “It’s gonna be a nice meeting,” Young says. Unfortunately, it may not amount to anything. But it can. I just hope something fruitful comes out of it. Because last year we had the same Tribal Conference and not much came out of it.”

Young is calling for a separate meeting between White House officials and only the Alaskans. One of Young’s former staffers on Native issues, Cynthia Ahwinona is in Washington for the week representing the Nome Eskimo community. She’s more optimistic than he former boss about President Obama’s commitment to Alaska Natives.

“He actually did really good, president did great follow up last year on the issues. We got the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Reauthorization was passed, now permanent. Was promise the president made that it would get passed. He is great at following up with his promises. He’s got great staff.”

Thursday’s Tribal Nations Conference will begin with an address by President Obama, followed by break-out sessions.

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