AFN Convention Gets Underway in Anchorage

Photo by Lori Townsend, APRN - Anchorage: Keynote speaker John Baker speaks at AFN on Thursday, October 20, 2011.

The Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention got under way today in Anchorage at the Dena’ina convention center. The event is billed as the largest annual gathering of Native people in the United States. This year’s theme is Strength in Unity and AFN President Julie Kitka stressed that message in her remarks as she talked about the importance of a unified voice as Congress’s super committee looks to shave more than a trillion dollars from the federal budget before Thanksgiving. Kitka said although funding for Native programs is a small part of the overall budget, cuts to them could be devastating to Native communities. She says, this fall it’s crucial to be heard in Washington DC.

Congressman Don Young also talked about the importance of Alaska Natives standing together. He told the attendees that Native businesses are the economic base of Alaska.

But clearly the crowd was most excited about welcoming this year’s keynote speaker, the 2011 Iditarod champ John Baker, who was introduced by retiring North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta. As Itta proudly spoke of Baker not only winning the Iditarod after 16 years of running it but shattering the record by three hours, the crowd broke into a spontaneous honoring of John in traditional Inupiaq fashion.

When Baker spoke, he talked about being born and raised in Kotzebue. He said although there are problems that confront Native people every day, he prefers to see them as challenges.

But Baker didn’t spend as much time talking about himself or his accomplishments as he did about his mother, Marge Baker, who he called his role model. His father died when he was 6 and left John’s mother with seven children to raise. He said she never complained and raised all of her children to be independent, hard working people, all while running her own business, Baker Aviation.

He said the morning he won the Iditarod, he found out she had cancer but he said she still inspired her family to stay strong. He asked his mom, in the front row to stand for applause. Baker then brought his comments back to the theme of unity and not succumbing to the victim mindset, as he reminded people of the economic strength of Native businesses in Alaska.

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians  spoke next, saying listening to John Baker made her proud to be Alaska Native. Johnson Pata is Tlingit. She said NCAI is pushing three main issues with Congress. One is to make sure Indian Country is held harmless in the budget cuts, the second is restoring Native lands and the ability to take land into trust and the third is amending the violence against women act to safeguard Native women and children. Johnson Pata said NCAI is working against the continual attacks in Congress on Alaska Native Corporations involvement in the 8(a) federal contracting program.

She also stressed needed changes to Indian Education through a draft plan called the Indian Class Act. The AFN convention continues tomorrow.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori