The 78th Annual Tribal Assembly of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska began Wednesday, kicking off a four-day gathering of Tlingit and Haida delegates from across Alaska as well as from the Lower 48.
The event at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Wednesday, but it got going early, meaning Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford wound up taking to the podium nearly 45 minutes before his scheduled address to the delegates.
“We must be on Indian time,” Sanford joked. “What time is it? I thought I wasn’t on until two o’clock.”
Sanford homed in on the theme of this year’s Tribal Assembly, “Hold Each Other Up,” in his remarks.
“Your theme for this year’s council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is, in my mind, the most important thing of your assembly this year,” said Sanford. “And in my perspective, it means more than just one-on-one holding each other up, or family-to-family holding each other up. It is about us as communities in our region holding each other up.”
In addition to Sanford’s work as mayor of Juneau, he noted, he is also a member of the Alaska Municipal League, as well as a member of the board of directors of Southeast Conference, a business-oriented regional nonprofit organization.
“These issues you as an organization are working on are mostly the same exact things that we as individual organizations are working on,” Sanford said. He added, “I truly believe if we can bring many of our communities and organizations together and work on these issues as a team, as our military service has taught us to do, that we will accomplish much more than if we’re handling them on our own. By holding each other up in a larger context, by all of us in our region working together, we will and can make life better for our elders, for ourselves, for others, for our families, for our clans.”
Freda Westman, grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp, focused on the conference theme as well in her speech.
“I appreciate this theme very much, as it closely follows many of my ideals, which is working together,” said Westman. “And I am here to hold you up. And I hope that you will call on the sisters of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, grand officers, if you should need holding up.”
Westman added, “There is much work yet to do, and I am so glad that you have this theme for this year’s assembly, because there is a lot to do yet. And I couldn’t be prouder than to be able to work with all of you to continue this work that our grandparents and parents started.”
The Alaska Native Sisterhood and its counterpart, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, were founded in 1912 — the year Congress approved the organization of the Territory of Alaska — as nonprofit organizations to advocate for Alaska Native civil rights.
Both organizations remain closely tied to the Central Council and other Native groups in Alaska.
The delegates also heard from freshman Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, on activities at the Alaska State Capitol during the 90-day legislative session that ended Sunday.
“Depending on your perspective, it was the best session or the worst session in recent history,” Kreiss-Tomkins remarked.
Kreiss-Tomkins spent several minutes discussing Senate Bill 21, legislation to cut oil production taxes and restructure the tax credit system for oil producers on the North Slope. He called the bill’s passage “a grave disappointment,” saying it would deprive the state of nearly $1 billion in revenue every year.
“The piece of legislation passed literally just a few days ago, but it will cast a long shadow over the state, and it will hurt our communities,” Kreiss-Tomkins predicted.
While Kreiss-Tomkins said S.B. 21 was the most important bill that passed this year, he was more upbeat about the success of Senate Bill 37, which extends the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council until 2019, and the apparent failure of House Bill 3, which would increase the state’s voter identification requirements. Native groups have decried H.B. 3 as an attempt to stifle the Native vote, a charge the bill’s sponsor, Anchorage Republican Rep. Bob Lynn, has fiercely denied.
Kreiss-Tomkins also spoke about the bipartisan Bush Caucus, a group of representatives from rural parts of Alaska that includes all four of Southeast Alaska’s House members.
“Frankly, I think the Bush Caucus has more in common than, say, the Democratic Party or the Republican Party,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “Because we all come from similar backgrounds and similar communities.”
Kreiss-Tomkins criticized what he said he sees as an approach to legislating that is skewed toward the Railbelt and the Republican Party. He said the Bush Caucus will work harder next year to mobilize people in rural areas and advocate for rural issues.
While Wednesday’s events were largely ceremonial and informational, there was some action on the floor. Some delegates challenged Central Council President Edward K. Thomas’ ruling that Tribal Court Chief Justice Debra O’Gara should be considered to have been elected to a four-year term beginning last year, saying a new election should be held for the position.
After taking a show of hands from the delegates, Thomas concluded that his ruling was upheld by a 47-46 vote.
Central Council delegates represent about 20 communities, including Tlingit and Haida diasporas in San Francisco and Seattle.
The Tribal Assembly is set to adjourn Saturday. Upcoming events include the Tribal Court judicial elections, consideration of the organization’s budget for the next fiscal year, and elections for youth representative and “Citizen of the Year,” as well as reports from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, Sealaska Corp., Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, and others.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.