Alaska Native Communities Investing In Immigration Reform

Photo by Lori Townsend, APRN - Anchorage.
Photo by Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage.

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.

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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.”

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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