ANCHORAGE - The future of tribal status is likely to be a main focus this week as about 5,000 Alaskans gather at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage for the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
The six-day gathering, which began today, is part business and part social.
"It's probably the highlight of the year for many, many Alaska Natives," said AFN spokesman Mike Irwin.
In addition to the crowds drawn to Anchorage, others will watch the events on television or listen to statewide radio broadcasts scheduled all week.
The event includes cultural activities such as dance performances and one of the biggest arts and crafts show in the state.
Delegates from Alaska's tribes and regional corporations will spend much of the time discussing the issues that confront Natives, including subsistence, health, housing, sanitation and education.
One concern this year is how the changing political landscape in Washington, D.C., could affect Alaska tribes.
"We might be seeing a watershed shift starting to happen" that could give Alaska Natives different tribal status than tribes in the Lower 48, Irwin said. That could affect bedrock programs such as health services.
"It's a major challenge to understand it all," Irwin said.
Another hot topic is whether the convention will endorse a gubernatorial candidate. A candidate forum Friday afternoon will be followed by debate among delegates over which candidate, if any, to endorse.
The convention began today with the Youth and Elders Conference. In roundtable discussions and talking circles, groups of youngsters and seniors will talk about wellness, changing communities, motivation and topics such as "What does it feel like to be an elder?"
A steady stream of speeches and presentations will mark the main convention, which begins Thursday morning. The keynote speaker is Paul Okalik, premier of Canada's new and largely Native territory Nunavut.
Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch, Gov. Tony Knowles and members of Alaska's congressional delegation will address the convention. AFN president Julie Kitka will give an overview of the year and a look ahead for Alaska Natives.
After five days of talking, listening and hallway debates, delegates come together Saturday to vote on a host of resolutions on issues such as tribal sovereignty, subsistence and other matters. The convention ends with a banquet Saturday night.
One the Web: www.nativefederation.org.