The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
The 2013 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention was a time not just to have fun, visit and learn. It was also a forum to express opinions. Each year, the convention process leads to the adoption of numerous strongly worded resolutions.
Some of these resolutions are bound to be controversial, both inside and outside the Native community. Ideas that have broad support within the Native community sometimes have less support among Alaskans as a whole, and vice versa.
That’s not necessarily because these Alaskans are anti-Native, or vice versa. Some Alaskans fit that description, to be sure. It’s all too easy to find examples of ugly verbal attacks and worse. But other perfectly well-meaning Alaskans have diverse opinions about ideal public policies.
Although it didn’t come up publicly at this year’s convention, the decade-long debate about the wisdom of so-called 8(a) preferences in federal contracting for Alaska Native corporations illustrates the point. The most fervent and energetic opponents of these preferences on the national stage have been members of the Democratic Party, which often is considered the more dependable ally of the political causes advocated by Native Americans. In contrast, criticism from within Alaska generally came from the most conservative end of the political spectrum, while Alaska Democrats — and, to be fair, many Alaska Republicans — back the federal policies.
The 8(a) debate in Congress, of course, was colored from the start by the fact that these preferences were installed years ago largely by Alaska’s congressional delegation, which happened to be all-Republican at the time. So the preferences naturally became easier targets for Democrats on the national level.
Today, though, we have a bipartisan delegation, and Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is an enthusiastic supporter of the preferences. His presence hasn’t eliminated the criticism, but it no doubt encourages the nay-sayers to be a little less partisan and a little more civil.
Likewise, Alaskans debate such issues vigorously and engage in boisterous election campaigns to oust one another from political office, but they shouldn’t categorically portray those with whom they disagree as ogres.
In that spirit, we should welcome the airing of strong opinions at the convention this past week, even if we don’t all agree on everything.
Just as with any other neighbors, you never know when you might want their helping hands tomorrow, whether to fix a fence or join a political campaign.