Libby Casey, APRN – Washington
President Obama met privately with a dozen tribal leaders representing all regions of the country during their gathering in Washington. The Alaskan there was Edward Thomas, president of the Tlingit Haida Central Council. But the meeting was cut short to just 20 minutes due to the President’s packed schedule, and half the group – including Thomas – didn’t get to
“I wanted to share with him the very important information about the high cost of energy and living in rural Alaska, the isolation causing problems, people having adequate medical care,” Thomas said. “You can go on and on about the conditions of our people in rural Alaska, and we want to make sure there are not deep budget cuts, and hopefully some modest increases.”
Thomas said the dozen native leaders did tell Obama that he needs to make sure the budget-makers think about the federal government’s trust responsibility with tribes before they cut costs – and not skimp on Indian Country.
“You have to have good budgets from the president or the departments, and not just wait for congress to beef them up like they do historically,” he said. “We’ve got to have a better relationship on the Administrative side, otherwise all your funding becomes at risk when it gets to Congress.”
Thomas has met with five other presidents over the decades, and even though he was disappointed he didn’t have more of a dialog with Obama, he believes the Commander in Chief has a firm grasp on what needs to be done – and is making headway.
Hearing a commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was a highlight for many of the leaders, including Lee Wallace, tribal president of the organized village of Saxman.
“With that lack of previous one signing on, what it gives us is another format, a world format for different issues that weren’t being addressed with the US Government,” Wallace said. “Another playing field to be working with.”
Julie Roberts Hyslop, chairwoman for the Native Village of Tanana, says President Obama is delivering a mix of action – and attitude – the likes of which she hasn’t seen before.
“He is giving us hope,” Hyslop said. “Just to see the progress he’s making in the two years that he’s been there, we’ve seen numerous changes. On Thursday the biggest smile that he put on my face was endorsing United Nations Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I think that will help us move forward with saving our language, saving our way of life, and it’s just so important for our young people to really take pride in who we are.”
One of the younger Alaskans, 26 year old Miranda Petruska from Nikolai’s Tribal Council, says she nearly teared up repeatedly throughout the day – both from the energy and power of her fellow Alaska Natives and American Indians and from officials’ reactions.
“Just having them like, acknowledge that they heard what we’re saying,” Petruska said. “Because I have a feeling these are things that have been said to them forever. I’m really glad the suicides have been brought up, and now they can hopefully do something about it. I’m just glad they acknowledged everything.”
But after acknowledgement comes action. And Casinero Aceveda from the village of Kake, says he brought up the topic of putting land into trust.
“Because all the Indians in Alaska that are sovereign Indian tribes do not have a land base,” Aceveda said. “Only the corporations, so if we got land to put it into trust we’d have a land base and economic development.”
Aceveda knows his message was received – because the Administration officials recited it back during the day’s final wrap-up. But he and the other Alaskan leaders say they’ll be listening to find out what action comes next from the President and his office.
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