Protest interrupts governor at AFN, reveals fissures over appropriate dissent among attendees

Protesters standing with their back to the stage during Governor Mike Dunleavy’s speech at the 2019 AFN convention in Fairbanks. (Photo by Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

A group of protesters briefly interrupted Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s address to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Thursday morning, drawing a rebuke from Will Mayo, one of the federation’s co-chairs.

Alaska Native groups have feuded with Dunleavy over his proposals to sharply cut government programs important to rural Alaska, setting a tense backdrop for this year’s convention which has the theme, “Good Government, Alaska Driven.”

Related: Here’s the first day of AFN in pictures.

After clashing with the federation’s leaders earlier this year, however, Dunleavy’s speech Thursday took a conciliatory tone. He said next year’s budget process will go more smoothly than the drawn-out one earlier this year. And he described his administration’s efforts to expand the reach of the state’s rural law enforcement efforts.

A few minutes in, though, a few dozen protesters rose from their seats at the Fairbanks auditorium, turned their backs and held up their hands. Some of them began chanting, and one person banged on a drum. Dunleavy briefly talked over them until Mayo stepped onto the stage and cut off the governor’s speech.

“I respect your right to protest in this way, but I want to ask you with respect to please express your views at the voting booth,” said Mayo, an official with Tanana Chiefs Conference, the Fairbanks-based tribal organization. “Please express your views in a productive way and please don’t come into our house and disrespect our guest.”

Related: As recall effort looms, can Gov. Dunleavy ease tensions with Alaska Native groups?

Gov. Mike Dunleavy addresses the 2019 Alaska Federation of Natives convention at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks on Oct. 17, 2019. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Dunleavy resumed his speech where he left off, without acknowledging the protest. Another Tanana Chiefs Conference official, Victor Joseph, followed Dunleavy’s remarks by apologizing to the governor.

A handout circulated by protesters before Dunleavy’s speech asked convention attendees to stand, turn their backs and raise their fists for four minutes to symbolize the $444 million that he vetoed from the state budget earlier this year.

“Stand with Alaska Native leaders to show what we really think of Dunleavy’s leadership,” the handout said, adding a reference to the recall campaign against the governor: “#RecallDunleavy.”

Samuel Johns, a Native activist who helped organize the protest — he was the one banging the drum — questioned Mayo’s point, that people should take out their frustrations at the ballot box. Johns says the protest was needed because the democratic process, in his mind, produced the wrong outcome. Dunleavy was elected after saying he had no plans to cut spending on schools or Alaska’s homes for the elderly but then he did so anyway, harming Native people.

“We did vote. People did vote. They listened to a man they trusted and he lied. So, how is democracy going to work when somebody’s making campaign promises and none of them are true?” Johns said.

Johns said the protesters’ message wasn’t aimed at Dunleavy because they don’t expect him to listen. Instead, he says, it was meant to express solidarity with others at the convention who might be worried about the repercussions of speaking up. Johns, who’s 34, says he thinks there’s a difference in the way elders and youth approach dissent.

“They’re from an era where after post-colonization, assimilation, they were taught to be quiet. They were taught to never speak out against anything, or they would be abused,” he said.

But others at the convention didn’t see things the same way — and they pointed out that some elders participated in the protest, too. Aaron Schutt, the 46-year-old chief executive of the Fairbanks-based Alaska Native regional corporation Doyon, says many participants share his view that culturally, it’s disrespectful to interrupt an invited guest in the middle of their speech.

“I wish the protesters well. I know they have good hearts and they want to raise important issues — on many of those issues, I may even agree with them. But go back to the main statement that Will Mayo made — there’s a time for everything,” he said.

One other element of the divide may be organizational. Johns, who helped lead the protest, is not actually a delegate to the AFN convention. Many of the leaders of the organization have high-profile roles in tribal groups or corporations — and jobs like Schutt’s can require him to be more pragmatic, he says.

“Sometimes we have to bite our tongue when we’d like to speak, and sometimes we have to speak when we’d like to bite our tongue…I’d like to say things many times, but I have to consider the best needs of the organization, not my own. Or the big picture, not the small picture. And AFN has similar balancing,” Schutt said.

Schutt said he thinks that some of Dunleavy’s speech got lost amid the protest — and that if people had been listening, they would have heard the governor reference a new area of potential collaboration between the state and tribal governments. The idea, Dunleavy’s office announced later in the day, could allow tribes to operate and oversee K-12 schools.

After the speech, Dunleavy said he gets along with people at the conference personally, but some folks disagree with policy choices on the budget.

“We just try to work through that,” he said.

He acknowledged the protest.

“You have these things happen when you do speeches,” he said. “A lot of governors do, the president does. It’s part of their First Amendment, people expressing their rights,” he said.

He left directly after speaking, heading to meetings in Homer and Wasilla, he said. His wife, Rose, is staying at the convention.

Alaska Public Media reporter Casey Grove contributed to this story.