Cuts to federal funding, subsistence rights, new leadership and the Alaska Federation of Natives’ bylaws are just a few of the issues Tlingit-Haida Central Council President Ed Thomas had on his mind as the annual convention was winding down Saturday.
Thomas said further cuts to federal funding would seriously impact tribal organizations like the Central Council. Another entity in need of better funding, he said, is the Federal Subsistence Board. Without it, subsistence resources on federal land won’t be managed well enough to benefit the people who rely on them, Thomas said.
AFN delegates elected two new co-chairs to the organization’s board of directors. Thomas said the new leaders represent a transition that needs to happen.
He’s pleased with new leadership; it’s the old rules that he doesn’t like. A little known AFN bylaw allows member organizations from the same region to buy another organization’s vote by paying their annual dues. For example, a tribe that can’t afford the AFN dues or travel to the annual convention to vote can give permission to another organization within the region, such as a regional or village corporation, to pay the tribe’s dues and, in effect, vote for them. Thomas said the bylaw doesn’t sit well with him.
Thomas spoke with the Juneau Empire Saturday in Fairbanks.
What are some of the priorities for the Tlingit-Haida Central Council from now until the next convention?
For Central Council, it still is trying to fix the problems with the federal budget. Sequestration has had a very huge impact, unless we can get the President to increase our budgets just the like he did for the rest of the non-(Bureau of Indian Affairs) departments and the Department of the Interior. What they did is they added 5.11 percent to the non-BIA agencies.
What are some of the services within the Central Council’s realm that have been affected by sequestration?
We were really able to, in the first round, absorb some of those negative impacts by cutting back on some administrative functions and consolidating programs. But if we were going to have a larger cut next year, we won’t be able to absorb that, so the biggest concern is how we’re going to deal with family issues, Indian Child Welfare or Division of Tribal Family and Youth services. Those are of most concern because, even now, they are grossly overburdened with issues and there's not enough resources. Tied into that, to a large degree, are some of the safety net programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Those are going to start getting tighter, and unless the Farm Bill gets passed, the food stamp program could be severely impacted. Even with food stamps, our families have a hard time because there’s just not enough support for them and their issues.
What are some of your thoughts on the deep conversations that happened during the convention surrounding suicides, alcoholism and sexual abuse?
My thoughts are that I believe that the dialogue is starting to go in the right direction, meaning that we can’t always wait for an agency to come help us set up some special program. We, as a people, need to start taking more control over those things. We need to strengthen the relationship between parents and children, not just when they’re troubled, but throughout their growing years. I think that’s a problem and as a result, some people don’t have good coping skills. I think going in that direction is much better than the past.
Were there any resolutions passed that were particularly important for Southeast Alaska?
I don’t believe so. I think even the ones we proposed on things like subsistence were of a statewide nature. We did not push Southeast issues, per se.
What exactly is the role that the Central Council plays in subsistence?
For about 15 or 20 years, we had a subsistence coordinator. We had to stop that because there was really very little happening to fix the problem. We were in a mode where every year we were writing on what the problem is, but there really is no clear solution, so when we thought that the President or the Department of the Interior was going to step up to the plate and start fixing some of the problems, we had some hopes that would happen. When it didn’t happen to the degree we thought it should, we just tried to work more with AFN instead of trying to do our own thing.
One of the things that I feel strongly about, as president of Tlingit and Haida, is that if the federal government says they’re going to manage the subsistence resources on federal land, they cannot do it without a budget — a budget that is strong enough to fund the kinds of people that the state has to manage its fish and game resources. It’s got to be at least as much money as the state is going to spend and it’s not there. I think it was $4 million one year. Most of those dollars are used just to bring the subsistence committees together and you can’t manage resources that way, so it becomes a shallow promise.
What is the involvement of the Central Council with the rural status issue of Saxman?
We are, and have been from day one, advocating that Saxman should retain its rural status. The rules that apply really don’t make too much sense for that community, because it’s comparable to any other rural community in terms of its size, its challenges and the makeup of its citizenry.
Why does Saxman need to have rural status? Why is it important?
So that they can participate in rural priority for subsistence.
There was some dissent among a few of the delegates about regional corporations being able to buy votes in the election for co-chair. You spoke out about that. Can you discuss your concerns?
My concerns are that when an organization that is a member of the Alaska Federation of Natives chooses to relinquish their membership, their votes should go with them. They’re not just out there so people can say, “Oh, gee whiz, it looks like I need them for the next election’” and then (the corporations) go out and pay for (the village’s) votes. It’s out of order for the intent of AFN. We are a membership organization and when a member declines or chooses not to participate, they no longer have standing. Even people in my own region don’t agree with that totally, but that’s my position and it’s always going to be.
Those votes bring in a lot of money. If they lose the dues from some of the tribes or the village corporations that can’t afford to participate in the AFN convention, out goes a lot of money. Should that not be a consideration as far as your concerned?
Well, if it’s just about money, that’s fine, but to do it just for voting — that’s different. There are two categories of payers. They can pay the dues and membership and just don’t pay for voting.
What do you think about having two young women who were born after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act taking co-chair roles within the organization?
One of the important things to keep in mind is that Southeast Alaska, through Sealaska, nominated the highest vote getter, so that’s where our heart lies. We really agree that there needs to be more of those younger people coming in and being part of the leadership of AFN going forward. We fully understand the qualities that they bring to the table.
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