Sealaska CEO Lobbies Obama on Subsistance, 8(a) Contracts

President Barack Obama meets with a group of tribal leaders in the White House, Nov. 12, 2013. Sealaska CEO Chris McNeil Jr. represented Alaska. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Chris McNeil Jr. is president and chief executive officer for Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast.

He and 11 tribal leaders from around the country met with the president to talk about creating jobs and sustainable economic development. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other administration staffers also attended.

McNeil, the only Alaska representative, said he told Obama that federal subsistence rules are not working as they should.

“Alaska Natives are not able to participate fully in the preference as it stands today and the regulations really need a revamping,” he said..

McNeil said traditional hunting, fishing and gathering are part of Alaska’s economy and rule changes could help them grow. He told officials subsistence is also an important part of the state’s food security.

Sealaska’s CEO said he also pushed for changes in what’s called the 8(a) program. Alaska Native corporations use it to win federal contracts without competing against other businesses. They can also partner with non-Native companies.

It’s been controversial, with calls to rein it in or shut it down. McNeil said it’s an important part of Alaska’s economy, and employs Natives and non-Natives.

“In our view, the administration can still reformulate its regulatory emphasis to be able to make that program work much better within existing law,” he said.

He said Obama asked well-informed questions. But most of the time was taken by Native leaders proposing economic development plans.

While McNeil represented Juneau-headquartered Sealaska, he lives in Washington state. He plans to retire in 2014 after about a dozen years heading the corporation.

The meeting with the president came before the larger White House Tribal Nations Conference.

Sealaska Board Member Jacqueline Johnson Pata, also executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said it continued the same theme.

“The focus of this meeting was really about jobs and the economy and how he, through an administrative lens, can strengthen the ability of tribes to be more successful in that conversation,” she said.

She said the Obama administration turned out in force to meet with delegates from Indian Country, including Alaska.

“We had 12 secretaries, which is the most secretaries ever, listening directly to the tribes. And I think that this really shows this administration is really dedicated to try to resolve some of these issues.. And you could tell that by the depth of their knowledge around the particular issues, whether they be Alaska Native or the Lower-48 tribes,” she said.

Pata said they discussed infrastructure needs, trust asset tax issues and strengthening education, among other topics.


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Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska - Juneau
Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.