The Alaska Federation of Natives Convention entered second day today. On the agenda: Affordable Care Act opportunities, arctic policy and suicide prevention.
Attendees are also hearing a lot this year about a topic that isn’t usually associated with native issues- immigration. Sealaska President and CEO Chris McNeil has been at the helm of the Southeast Alaska Native corporation for the past 12 years. Now, the Native community is investing energy into immigration reform.
McNeil-“The immigration issue is about human rights, it’s about civil rights. If you think about the Alaska Native Brotherhood started over a 100 years ago at this point. It was a civil rights organization, it was about the right of our Native people to be able to vote and to be able to have the franchise. And we have common cause with others, the Hispanic community is a growing community in Alaska, it’s very large outside of Alaska. Given the changes in Congress over time it’s very important to have alliances and that’s also part of our involvement.”
Townsend-Every year at AFN there is discussion and debate around perennial problems and issues that Native people face. Is that productive, do you see change coming out of the annual gatherings and the resolutions that get passed?
McNeil- “Yes, I do. There was a very powerful presentation that was just made on Alaska Native suicide and suicide prevention. These are issues that are important and systemic but it’s very clear that they’re only going to be solved if people do something about it, namely we do something about it. I think it really does provide an inspiration and a means to be able to help with these kinds of issues.”
Townsend-I remember several years ago, former North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta got up at AFN and gave a very passionate speech about the need to recognize the problem of drugs and alcohol and to address it and when he got done with that speech, you could have heard a pin drop it was so quiet and then everyone erupted in applause. I talked to him later and he said, wow, I thought I was in trouble there , but it seemed like that almost was a turning point. How would you characterize that? I know that I’ve talked to people in the past who said you could not talk about those things in the village because of the anger and hurt and shame that surrounded them and suddenly he opened that door.
McNeil-“Well I think that was in fact a very important moment but I do think all the regions are approaching this in a very creative, innovative way in their own regions. For example, within the Southeast region, we’re very interested in the health of our communities. And we created an organization called Haa Aani LLC, to be able to stimulate the economy to be able to try to create sustainable entrepenurship among our communities because we also believe you have to have a healthy economy to be able to have a healthy culture to have good health in the communities.
Townsend- You’ll be retiring next year. What do you think the future looks like for the next crop of Alaska Native leaders. How will it be different than what leaders of your generation have faced?
McNeil- “Well I think every generation has different kinds of challenges. I don’t think there any less or easier as you go along, they’re just different. As both society, politics and the economy all evolve, well the corporation leadership has to be able to perceive that, adjust to it to be able to take a leadership position on those types of issues. Just as an example, so far as communications is concerned, the advent of social media is everywhere and you have to be adept about understanding these kinds of vehicles in order to do well in the future. So I think it’s fair to say there’s a new set of challengees for the next generation of leadership and it will just be different than the ones that were faced by the first generation of ANCSA leadership and the second and now we’re on to the third or fourth at this point.”