Tlingit-Haida Central Council held its first Native Issues forum at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center Wednesday.
Melissa Kookesh helped organize the lunchtime forums, which are held throughout legislative session. She said the council has held them for at least 10 years and that they’re an opportunity for the community, Native and non-Native, to meet with legislators over lunch.
“We like to break bread with each other and this is a way of breaking the ice, so to speak,” Kookesh said.
Wednesday’s forum featured Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel. Members of the audience asked questions about education funding, climate change and Medicaid expansion.
In response to an audience member’s question about education, Herron said some of Gov. Sean Parnell’s education proposals are solid but still needed consideration. He said the proposal to allow for public money to pay for tuition at private and religious school offers little to rural communities.
“In my region, if there (were) choices for kids to go to private schools I would consider it, but right now there’s very limited choice,” Herron said. “I would say that ... (education bills) shouldn’t be so urban-centric in the thought process.”
Herron said the residential schools that rural residents are being offered in Parnell’s proposed legislation brings up “horrific stories” from people in his region. He talked about a “lost generation” of people who went to boarding schools in Alaska decades ago.
When the topic of urban-rural divide in Alaska came up, Drummond told the audience about a map she has that has the state of Alaska superimposed to scale over the Lower 48.
“And it stretches from San Diego to Georgia and from Minnesota to Oklahoma. I realized I was essentially moving from Missouri to Georgia for three months,” Drummond said.
She said many people don’t understand the scale of Alaska’s size to its population and how expensive it to “work, live and raise families here.”
Future forums will include Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka, Republican senators Fred Dyson and Peter Micciche and Democrats Rep. Ben Nageak and Sen. Donny Olson.
There are still several forums with guests to be confirmed. Kookesh said the council tries to choose speakers from both political parties and from both rural and urban areas. Kookesh said the council doesn’t impose topics on guest speakers; they’re welcome to discuss what’s important to them and those who attend the forums are welcome to ask any questions they’d like.
“We don’t have data that we’re trying to gather from it,” Kookesh said. “I think (it’s about) just meeting (the lawmakers) and getting to know who they are, giving them the opportunity to come and speak to the Native community or whoever attends the forums.”