The 71st Annual General Assembly of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska began Wednesday at Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, and the election of a new president promises to be the most visible issue.
Juneau delegate Dana Ruaro is challenging Ed Thomas, the Tlingit and Haida Central Council president since 1984.
The four-day conference runs through Saturday and will address program funding, health care, housing, transportation out of Juneau and the state ferry system, among other issues.
"One of the realities of state funding is that it's controlled primarily by the Railbelt," Thomas said. "We have to count on our representatives to speak up on our issues. We can't just be getting jerked around out of Anchorage.
"The federal highway money comes in and it's allocated out, and the state of Alaska needs to do a good job in making sure some of the money goes to the maintenance of the ferry instead of projects up in Anchorage all the time," he said. "We're never going to get out of that as long as the majority has no empathy for the rest of the state."
The president and six vice-presidents will be elected Friday. Candidates will deliver their speeches today.
Thomas has served 11 consecutive two-year terms and was second in total votes, to Cyril George, during the mid-March Juneau delegate election for the General Assembly.
"I have been involved in many, many national issues and statewide issues relative to Native Americans," Thomas said. "I go to each and ever community that we have a program in, and I speak to the people more than any other elective Native leader. I'm in contact with the people, and I know the issues, and I know the problems as well as anybody."
Ruaro grew up in Ketchikan, earned a degree in business administration from Haskell University and was an employment and training specialist, as well as the interim manager, for the Ketchikan Indian Community. She moved to Juneau to become the executive assistant to Thomas at the Tlingit-Haida Central Council. She was also the front office manager and oversaw the budget for the general fund. She sits on the Alaska Native Sisterhood Executive Council and the board of Juneau Community Schools, and serves as the sergeant of arms for the Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp. She now works for SEARHC.
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Ruaro said she hopes to bring a more democratic style to the presidency, with more power given to the executive council.
"In seeing how the money is spent under our compact, you see a lot of what's happening and it's something that can't be ignored," Ruaro said. "We're our own worst enemy. We didn't spend about $800,000 in our compact last year, and that shows the federal government that we don't have the need for that money, which is absolutely not true.
"I'm always looking at how we can get the money pumped back out into the smaller communities and how we can help the communities with economic development, jobs and training," she said.
Korry Keeker can be reached at email@example.com.