FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Federation of Natives has made several major changes to its bylaws and governance, AFN President Julie Kitka announced Thursday at the organizations annual convention. Kitka said during her president’s report, which kicked off the three-day convention, that the changes were intended to better engage members “as actively and transparently as possible.”
A new voting category for tribes was created, as was a new executive governance committee. The committee is made up of individuals who represent AFI’s tribal and regional members.
“We all look forward to using these new voting structures for the first time during this year’s resolutions process,” Kitka said.
The changes were much-anticipated after member organizations threatened last year to withhold their AFN dues if changes to the organizations structure weren’t made.
“As we work actively and continuously evolve the structure of AFN, our primary objective is to do everything in our power to maintain a strong and steady, unified voice for all Alaska Natives,” Kitka said.
The most pressing issue for the organization, Kitka said, is subsistence.
Last month, AFN representatives traveled to Washington D.C. to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking member on the committee, scheduled the hearing. Kitka said it was the first Alaska National Interest Lands Act (ANILCA) oversight hearing on subsistence policy in 20 years.
Kitka said AFN’s long-term goal is to see legislation passed that achieves a “Native-Plus Priority.” She said the organization will focus on amending ANILCA and restoring aboriginal title, as supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples.
“Meanwhile, we have taken every opportunity to encourage the administration to take certain actions that would cost little or nothing and would not require federal legislation,” Kitka said, “but would improve the federal subsistence management system in Alaska.”
The Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in March. Murkowksi inserted a special rule into the act that excluded Alaska’s tribes from new provisions in the act that gave tribes the jurisdiction to issue protection orders against non-tribal persons. Murkowski said in a statement just weeks after the reauthorization that the provision that her rule exempts Alaska from was never intended for Alaska’s tribes.
The provision applies to areas legally considered “Indian Country,” and Alaska lost that designation with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Kitka said AFN is working with Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich on the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2013. The act would repeal the special rule in VAWA and would encourage intergovernmental agreements to deal with domestic violence in villages. Kitka said AFN has requested a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder.
“We believe there should be a stronger role for the federal government in the legislations,” Kitka said. “In addition, the Office of Tribal Justice Support should provide more funds and technical assistance to tribes in Alaska for the development, enhancement and continuing operation of tribal justice systems. Tribal courts in Alaska need to be armed with the ability to stop violence in the early stages.”
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Right Act in June. The justices ruled in a 5-4 decision that Section 4 of the act was unconstitutional, violating the Tenth Amendment which guarantees states the right to regulate elections. Section 4 placed restrictions — with regards to political redistricting and elections — on nine states, including Alaska, that had a history of voter discrimination. Kitka said the Supreme Court’s decision begins a new era in the struggle to protect the voices of Native voters.
“The ensuing loosening of federal protections opens the door in ALaska to abuses, redistricting issues, and worrisome legislation such as a voter ID bill sought by Rep. Bob Lynn of Anchorage,” Kitka said. “This loss is not absolute and can be challenged through further legal action.”
Funding tribal hospitals, clinics
The Indian Health Service, which provides funding and oversight for tribal hospitals and clinics, was not exempted from federal sequestration. The traditionally underfunded government agency saw a 9 percent cut in its budget, so IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux proposed caps on contract support costs — the payments to tribes and tribal health consortiums to cover administrative costs.
Kitka said an estimated $250 million is owed to Alaska tribal health organizations. Sens. Begich and Murkowski and Rep. Don Young have introduced bills in their respective political bodies to deliver advanced appropriations to the IHS. Kitka said passage of such legislation would bring more certainty and quality to tribal health care.
Looking forward, Kitka said AFN will advocate for legislation that exempts all tribal programs from current and future sequestration of appropriations.
“The challenges are great, but our values are aligned with a growing network of partners, advocates, friends and allies,” Kitka said. “We have laid the groundwork for significant progress in the defense of all our futures.”