The 53rd Alaska Federation of Natives convention wrapped up in Fairbanks late Saturday afternoon. Conference attendees heard remarks by both U.S. senators, and voted on a number or resolutions, which included a contentious debate on climate change, a topic that came up repeatedly.
AFN delegates approved a measure declaring a state of emergency over climate change. The resolution was authored by young participants in the Elders and Youth conference, and also called for the creation of a leadership task force focused on climate action.
During more than an hour of debate, the resolution received strong push back, particularly from members of the North Slope delegation. Crawford Patkotak chairs the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation board, and said the measure leaves open the possibility that outside interests like environmental and animal rights groups could set the terms for resource development on indigenous lands.
“These are the same organizations that come into our communities and try to split us all apart, split all the corporations, the tribes, the governments. Because they have an agenda. And if they had their agenda we wouldn’t be able to hunt today,” Patkotak said as applause broke out. “If they had their agenda we wouldn’t be able to develop the oil we have in the ground. That would cripple us economically.”
Opponents pushed an amendment that would have included language sympathetic to fossil fuel extraction, something the youth delegates opposed categorically, saying it defeated the resolution’s intent. Two of the measure’s authors were on hand, and fought back attempts to soften it.
“I am not an environmentalist, I am an indigenous youth,” said Quannah Potts. “We are not here to fight with our own people, we are here to stand together. This is a serious issue. I’m worried about our future generations. We’re crying up here. We should not have to cry to you guys, we should not have to come to you worrying about our future generations, our future children and grandchildren. We should be able to live our ways of life, to hunt.”
Several elders and leaders agreed with the youth delegates. Chief Victor Joseph is chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference, and defended the measure, saying the discussion had veered away from the scope and scale the resolution calls for.
“Let’s honor these young people who stood up. They need it. And they did it eloquently and in a good way. Let’s stop the debate and give them what they want,” Joseph said.
Ultimately the measure passed and was adopted by AFN.
In her remarks, Senator Lisa Murkoski also mentioned the accelerating impacts of climate change on Alaska, including pallets of fans being shipped to Kotzebue this summer, shriveled blueberries from the southeast drought, and choking smoke from wildfires. Reflecting on the theme of “Good Government, Alaskan Driven,” Murkowski said she sees hope in the persistence and adaptability of communities like Newtok.
“There’s been challenges, plenty of challenges, they’ve seen setbacks, they’ve had their disagreements. These are the bumps in the road that come with change and with life anywhere,” Murkowski said. “But the community stuck with it. And then just last week, 10 kids had their first day of school at Mertarvik. It is really, really good.”
Murkowski spoke extensively about the dismal state of public safety in Alaska, particularly for indigenous women and children. She highlighted her legislative efforts to strengthen laws and channel funds to protect women. A visit this summer from Attorney General William Barr has been advantageous for steering federal resources into the state, Murkowski said, but she is unsettled that it took a Department of Justice visit to rural Alaska for an official state of emergency to be declared.
“Why did it take an outsider to see? That’s something that continues to trouble me,” Murkoski said during an interview with reporters after her speech. “But I recognize that with every person that we bring up from the outside we make just a little bit more headway.”
It was a topic that Senator Dan Sullivan spoke of at length, too, during his remarks to the convention. He also pointed to successful passage of an act to secure land claims for Alaska Native veterans who served during the Vietnam War when the original selection process took place, but acknowledged there will be more challenges ahead with implementing the bill.
AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman was re-elected to another term, though her challenger, Greg Razo, received substantial support for his bid.
Next year’s AFN convention will be in Anchorage.