Alaska Federation of Natives stays mum on Climate Change Task Force progress

A woman in a mask in a white sweater and a necklace
Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka on August 26, 2020. Kitka told Alaska Public Media that AFN is working with the National Science Foundation and the Nature Conservancy to secure funding for a climate task force. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Federation of Natives Convention came to a close Friday with little discussion about how to respond to climate change. This year, the convention’s third day, when resolutions are openly debated, was eliminated.

Various Native organizations submitted 30 resolutions for consideration. There is no open resolution debate this year. Only one resolution briefly mentions climate change. It’s very much unlike last year, when a resolution calling on AFN to declare a climate change emergency took center stage for hours during the convention’s final day.

From the convention floor in Fairbanks, 15-year-old Nanieezh Peter explained to AFN leadership why it was necessary to declare a climate change emergency. “It’s all of our futures and it’s all of our traditions and rights and cultures to keep this land healthy and to keep our people happy and economic growth and money is not a part of that conversation,” said Peter.

She and 17-year-old Quannah Chasinghorse Potts had a memorable back and forth with Crawford Patkotak, Chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Patkotak warned of a slippery slope: he worried that if Alaska Native leadership starts to take on climate change policy, it could inadvertently restrict access to resources.

“We’re fighting the critical habitat area now that the environmentalists say this is gonna help our subsistence rights, when in fact, it does not. They start to use that critical habitat as a way to regulate our hunting. We’re seeing it already with the polar bear…” he said.

In the end, AFN did declare a climate change emergency and they agreed to establish a leadership task force that would advocate for strong climate change-focused policies.

Two months later, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation announced its board had voted unanimously to leave AFN. The state’s largest Alaska Native Corporation cited lacking alignment on policy, although there was no specific mention of the climate change resolution. In the past, ASRC and AFN have diverged on the issue.

Two weeks ago, Nanaieezh Peter said she was still waiting to find out how AFN would proceed. 

“Well, not a lot has happened, not nearly as much as we wanted to have happen,” said Peter on a Zoom call from her home.

Resolution authors sent an email to AFN Board President Julie Kitka last March.

“We wrote them a letter earlier this year asking them to keep us updated, putting ourselves out there asking them to put us on the task force, even,” said Peter.

“We want to make sure they are doing something, like there’s action,” added Quannah Chasinghorse Potts. And they did get an emailed response from AFN Board President Julie Kitka on March 3. 

“The AFN Executive Committee has taken on this resolution,” Kitka wrote “They have had one meeting on this,” she wrote. “The first action they have taken is to urge the AFN staff to line up funding support for the effort.”

AFN declined multiple requests for comment on the progress they’ve made to establish the climate change task force since last year. In her email, Kitka wrote that AFN staff was considering approaching the National Science Foundation to secure a multi-year planning grant and that the Nature Conservancy “has offered to lend support.”

But, Quannah Chasinghorse Potts says the clock is ticking. “We’re being as patient as we can be,” said Potts. “Yeah, it’s been a year,” added Peter. 

Potts stepped up her emphasis on the urgency of the situation, as she sees it. “In our title is ‘state of emergency,” said Potts. “Like, you would think that that would just click in their head that we can’t wait more years and years as our way of life is being threatened every day.  We can’t keep waiting. Like, it’s a crucial time. We can’t wait anymore.”

To further complicate things, this year’s AFN convention is entirely virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. The online format means there is no open debate on resolutions submitted to AFN for consideration. But Peter said she has ideas for how to get her Alaska Native peers on board. “We could have youth send in videos and it doesn’t have to be long, but it’s just powerful,” she said.

Various Alaska Native organizations submitted about 30 resolutions to AFN for consideration this year. Only one resolution briefly mentions climate change. It calls on AFN to utilize the leadership task force — the same task force that hasn’t yet been established.