AFN leaders to stress unity at October convention
Alaska Federation of Natives board members made history at their convention last year when they chose to endorse Hillary Clinton—the first AFN endorsement of a presidential candidate in its 50-year history. In a sweeping statement from President Julie Kitka, the AFN board condemned Trump, saying his presidency would "[put] at risk all the gains we have achieved in our lifetime."
The AFN's message was clear: we're choosing sides.
At this year's convention, the AFN is switching its strategy. The theme of the convention, "Strength in Unity: Leadership—Partnerships—Social Justice," broadly pivots the AFN away from siding against President Trump and toward finding common ground.
"We worked very hard to make inroads with [the Trump] administration and see a lot of opportunity with them," said Ben Mallott, vice president of the AFN. He cited the organization's partnerships with the Alaska Congressional Delegation and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
Other leaders from the Alaska Native community agree with this sentiment.
"It's a slippery slope," said keynote speaker Lt. Colonel Wayne Don of endorsing presidential candidates. "The stated mission of AFN is supposed to be non-partisan. It is for Alaska Native people to weigh in on issues and determine which ones we will support."
By focusing on unity, AFN leaders and delegates hope to build consensus among Alaska Native communities on a host of difficult issues. This consensus is important, they say, as it directs the organization's policy priorities.
Panels throughout the three-day conference in Anchorage will discuss problems facing the Alaska Native community including the opioid epidemic and declining economy. Delegates from across the state will also draft and vote on resolutions to guide AFN's agenda for the upcoming year.
"Many of our long-term goals stay the same," said Mallott, "and our resolutions provide a record of where we stand as an organization for our delegates and the general public."
The convention is the nation's largest gathering of Native people. It attracts leaders from across the state, including Alaska's state legislators, governor, congressman, and both of its senators.
That sort of political attention speaks to the strength of the AFN as a political body, said Don. "The power of any group to draw that kind of attention is significant. So, as a body, it's important that we use that platform." He also stressed that Alaska Natives were most effective when they united.
Along with the Elders and Youth convention that will occur earlier in the week, the AFN convention is expected to bring over 4,000 people to Anchorage. Last year, over 40,000 people tuned into the livestream or TV broadcast of the convention.
But AFN staff members say that the event will show only a small part of their work. Although the convention is the biggest event of the year, Jeffry Silverman, AFN's Director of Communications, said that it is important to remember that they are "busy all year round with legislation or court cases."
In the Dena'ina Center, the convention is as much a social event as a political gathering. Much of the festivity in the convention hall will center around bringing Alaska Native people from across the state together to celebrate their heritage.
The first floor of the convention hall will host the Alaska Native Customary Art Fair, where more than 170 artists will sell traditional art and clothing.
Additionally, dance groups from across the state will perform at the convention's Quyana nights (Thursday and Friday). Silverman called the event "[Alaska] Native dance one-stop-shopping" and an opportunity for regional representatives to "show off who they are."
The convention is also a chance for friends and family to reconnect and spend time together. NANA President and CEO Wayne Westlake labeled the convention an occasion to "gather and have fun" with Alaska Natives from across the state. The convention opens up dialogue between the regions, he said, which he values because "if we don't talk about our differences and common things it is hard to unify."
He also hopes to discuss topics ranging from subsistence rights to drilling.
Fierce debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has captured both statewide and national attention. Last week, a group of leaders from the Arctic Slope called Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat voted unanimously to support oil and gas drilling in the region. Conversely, environmental activists and other groups have advocated against drilling in the region for years.
Convention panels will discuss ANWR as well as other difficult issues. On Thursday, a panel will address the opioid crisis and its effect on Alaska Native communities.
"We hope to have a holistic discussion of the issue," said Mallot. The panel is aimed toward finding solutions, and it will feature a doctor to highlight the science behind opioid addiction.
President Julie Kitka summed up her objectives for the convention: "We will achieve our goals through sustained leadership and strategic partnerships, all with an eye on social justice."
The AFN Convention will take place Oct. 19-21. GCI, ARCS and 360 North will provide live coverage, and the AFN will host a webcast through its website.