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ANCHORAGE - Challenging times lie ahead for Alaska's tribes, ranging from anticipated cuts in their federal funding to challenges to their legal status. But on the opening day of their annual convention, members of the Alaska Federation of Natives were urged to work to protect tribal sovereignty.
"We cannot, we must not, we will not relinquish our right to self-determination as Alaska Native peoples," AFN President Julie Kitka told several thousand delegates and observers Thursday at the Egan Civic and Convention Center.
The convention brings together representatives of Alaska's 200-plus tribes, regional corporations and nonprofit agencies to take stock and prepare for the future. Subsistence has been a key topic at past conventions, but this year's unofficial theme is protecting the gains made in tribal sovereignty.
Kitka said Alaska has been well-served by the tribes' ability to take over their own health care, economic development and other social programs. Nevertheless, she added, those gains are in jeopardy.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, is pushing for tribes to regionalize and consolidate; federal spending is expected to shrink because of the war on terrorism and the faltering economy; and the U.S. Justice Department has expressed concern about Alaska tribal status.
She called for delegates to resist changes in their political status without their consent.
Jackie Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and a Juneau Tlingit, said the rights of all Native Americans are being eroded by a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In 20 years, the court "has sided with convicted criminals more often than it's sided with us," she said.
Tribal rights are threatened by dozens of small cuts rather than any single attack, and national legislation is needed to turn the tide, she said.
"Congress is the key to reaffirming the existing rights of tribes," she said.
AFN and Johnson's group are asking for Congress to act next year, and they plan a February summit in Washington, D.C., to push for their goals.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and gubernatorial candidate, had been scheduled to deliver a congressional report. Instead he gave a campaign speech, promising to let voters amend the constitution to allow a rural subsistence priority.
He also pledged to reinvigorate the state economy by building "roads to jobs" where needed in rural Alaska, as well as to find a fleet of DC-6 airplanes to fly fresh salmon out of state.
Delegates heard a success story from Paul Okalik, premier of Canada's newest territory, Nunavut. It was formed in 1999 after nearly three decades of work by Inuit political activists who demanded the right to self-determination, "perhaps to make mistakes, but they would be our mistakes," he said.
The convention continues through Saturday.