JUNEAU - Gov. Sarah Palin told Alaska Native leaders her administration will listen to their concerns and work cooperatively to find solutions to problems that have long plagued the Native community.
Palin spoke to the 37-member board of the Alaska Federation of Natives, which met in Juneau on Wednesday for the first time in several years.
Some members told Palin their concerns were ignored by the previous administration.
"It's very important that Alaska Natives be at the table, no matter which governor, whether they be Republican or Democrat. The last governor we had didn't include us at the table," said Matthew Nicolai, president of Calista Corp.
Nicolai said he was especially angered by the state's 2005 legal challenge of the federal government's right to control certain Alaska waters.
The state contends it was simply protecting its sovereign interests but Native leaders saw the lawsuit as a challenge to the federal law ensuring their subsistence rights to traditional hunting and fishing grounds.
Nicolai also urged the governor to include more Natives when making appointments to state boards and commissions.
Patrick Anderson, executive director of the tribal consortium, Chugachmiut, asked the governor to consider appointing a cabinet level office devoted to Alaska Native relations.
He said Native corporations and nonprofit organizations inject about $6 billion into the state's economy every year. But while the Native community contributes huge resources to the state, it has large needs as well, he said.
Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, and AFN co-chairman, said the board appreciated the meeting with Palin.
"We just think there is a breath of fresh air from the administration. The new governor has reached out and the Native community wants to reach out as well," Kookesh said.
Palin told the board she would need its assistance in moving forward with her priorities, such as a natural gas pipeline, full funding for education, restoring the longevity bonus for seniors, the Power Cost Equalization program and aid to municipalities struggling to pay rising retirement contributions.
Palin also said she was committed to regaining state control of subsistence fish and game management.
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