As communities across Alaska react to deep state budget cuts, some Alaska Natives are saying the state can learn from their cultures how to survive hard times. They said Alaska Natives are galvanized to try to prevent the cuts from happening — or to step in to respond if they do.
A special Native Issues Forum on July 30 in Juneau included brainstorming ideas on how to respond to the cuts.
AlexAnna Salmon, the president of the Igiugig Tribal Village Council, said Alaskans can learn from Alaska Native stories, like how to survive in times of starvation.
Salmon said the cultures and traditions of Alaska Natives have prepared them to respond to the cuts.
“This is our home and we’re the hosts,” she said. “And we need to be not only at the table, we need to be setting the table, and in this situation, we need to help this administration, because they don’t come from the culture that we come from, that doesn’t think in 10 years, or 20 years, we’re thinking of progress for the next 10,000 years.”
The Alaska Natives participating in the forum proposed a wide range of responses. One was to create an Alaska Native education consortium that could receive Head Start funding directly from the federal government, if Gov. Mike Dunleavy again vetoes all state Head Start funding.
Dunleavy has said the cuts are necessary to bring the amount the state spends in line with how much it raises. He also supports paying nearly $1 billion more in permanent fund dividends, according to the formula in a 1982 state law.
One participant proposed that more Alaska Natives should run for elected office, including governor.
Another participant was Richard Peterson, the president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. He said Dunleavy has “declared war” on Alaska.
“I know, as the president of Tlingit and Haida, these vetoes are going to happen, I have no doubt of it,” he said. “All I know is, what’s left is our need to move on, and our need to provide services to our people.”
Peterson says he’s finding it hard to not use what he called his “angry voice.”
“Tlingit and Haida operates Head Start programs here in Southeast Alaska,” he said. “Our people, our parents, they’re not going to care whose fault it is when I tell them, we have to close down centers. All they know is their babies aren’t going to get the best start they deserve.”
Dunleavy spokesman Matt Shuckerow cautioned on Monday that the budget is not final, and that Dunleavy will not be vetoing all of the same items as he did in June.
“This debate has led a lot of folks to engage in a way that they haven’t done before, in a productive way,” Shuckerow said, later adding: “Very simply, the governor is hoping to solve a fiscal issue that has plagued our state.”
Native Village of Afognak Tribal Administrator Melissa Borton said the tribal welfare compact the state and tribes signed two years ago shows the important role of tribes in providing services in the state. And she says the budget cuts are galvanizing Alaska Natives.
“Our people are fired up, and I love it, because it’s about time,” she said. “It’s about time that we get fired up and actually tell them what we want.”
One way Alaska Natives can make an impact is by participating in the 2020 U.S. Census, according to Barbara Blake, the director of the Alaska Native Policy Center at the First Alaskans Institute. She said having a complete count of Alaska Natives will help communities receive services.
“It puts a number to the force of our people,” Blake said. “We are force to be reckoned with, and if they haven’t figured that out by now, they will.”
Genevieve Guanzon, an elder, said Tlingit ancestors can teach Alaska a lesson.
“‘Long ago, our grandparents were right where we are right now and they survived,” she said. “And so will we, because they taught us.”
Guanzon ended her comments by singing a Tlingit song, calling on Alaskans to get up and stand together.
The forum was sponsored by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska; the First Alaskans Institute; Native Peoples Action; and Sealaska Corporation.