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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