Sealaska President and CEO Chris McNeil was one of 12 leaders to meet with President Barack Obama during the White House Tribal Nations conference last week.
McNeil was the only representative from Alaska among the group; in the five years the White House has held it, McNeil might be the first regional corporation representative to have met the president during the conference.
The Alaska Federation of Natives and the National Congress of American Indians supported sending a representative from one of the regional corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. McNeil said meeting the president was important because it recognized the role regional corporations play in policy making.
“It’s really a recognition of the unique relationship among the ANCSA corporations, the federally recognized tribes and the federal government,” McNeil said. “One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that the structure of the relationship among the ANCSA corporations as tribes has been entrenched in the law since 1974 and 1975.”
The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Indian Financing Act of 1974 both allow for Alaska Native corporations to consult with the federal government in the same capacity as tribes.
McNeil said the meeting with the president — which happened the day before the tribal conference started — went a bit longer than the 30 minutes scheduled, but that all 12 leaders had an opportunity to discuss issues important to them. McNeil said he discussed with the president issues that “are very much aligned with the Alaska Federation of Natives’ goals.” The biggest of those issues is subsistence and how it’s regulated under ANCSA and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
McNeil said reform to regulations was necessary to the Native community participating in subsistence activities “as intended by ANCSA and ANILCA.”
“We urge and will continue to urge that the administration continue to reform these regulations with greater Alaska Native participation in them so that there can be fair access to fisheries resources, in particular,” McNeil said.
Another priority McNeil discussed with the President was the availability of federal funding for community development financial institutions, also called CDFIs, which provide financing options to underserved markets. Sealaska’s subsidiary, Haa Aaní, oversees a CDFI.
“The extent to which the federal government can help capitalize these CDFIs will mean there will be more access to loans,” McNeil said. “For example, there’s a great need for boat loans in Southeast. We’ve also got a mariculture industry that can participate. In any event, the economy will be stimulated with individual tribal members able to get loans to start and expand businesses.”
McNeil also discussed the federal contracting program with Obama. The 8(a) contracting program came under fire about three years ago after Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a democrat, launched an effort to reform what she considered to be wasteful government spending on no-bid contracts with Native corporations. McNeil said changing regulatory processes, and not laws, would make contracting opportunities more available to corporations and tribes.
McNeil said he was encouraged by the meeting with Obama. He said the president was receptive and well briefed about the issues discussed.
“I thought what was significant was that there were senior White House staff at the meeting (that were) essentially directing people to follow up on these issues as we sat there,” McNeil said. “I think it’s an important message from him as the president... that there’s an interest in resolving these issues.”
• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/canfieldjenn.