ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Federation of Natives convention opens today in Anchorage with a focus on creating jobs in rural Alaska.
The U.S. Senate race, rural police and courts also are expected to be hot topics during the convention, which could be the last in Anchorage.
The largest statewide gathering of Alaska Natives typically draws several thousand people. They will flood downtown Anchorage today through Saturday, for activities ranging from craft sales to candidate forums.
"I think it will be a good one," said AFN vice president Mike Irwin.
Keynote speaker Karti Sandilya, the retired North American director of the Asian Development Bank, will launch the convention into its major theme: strengthening the economy of rural Alaska.
Economic development has been a primary focus of AFN this year.
At forums in June and September, it hosted talks between Native corporations and tribes and experts in communications, education and banking to promote a new "knowledge-based" economy. For example, rural workers might use the Internet to generate income using their ingenuity and culture.
"It's important that Native people look beyond Alaska" for ideas about creating sustainable communities, AFN co-chairman Trefon Angasan said in June. "This is a step we see as protecting our way of life."
Panels on economic and cultural development will continue the discussion Thursday afternoon.
The AFN board in March moved the 2005 event to Fairbanks after some delegates said that they no longer felt safe or welcome in Alaska's largest city.
In an attempt to win back the convention - and its estimated $4 million boost in hotel, restaurant and other revenue - Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich said the city and many businesses are extending delegates an especially warm welcome this year.
"The most important thing we can do is ensure we have a great convention and that we offer incredible hospitality," Begich said.
The event begins today and Tuesday with the annual Elders and Youth Conference, where past and future generations of Alaska Native leaders discuss issues of concern.
A big draw Wednesday will be the first official hearing of the new Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission. It was formed in response to long-held concerns about rural justice, from police service to the role of tribal courts, and will advise Congress and the Alaska Legislature on potential changes to the entire system next year.