ANCHORAGE - Alaska Native groups are working to find ways to streamline and economize the delivery of federal services to the state's 229 federally recognized tribes.
The action is the result of a warning issued in October by Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican. Speaking at a meeting of the Alaska Federation of Natives, Stevens said there were too many organizations administering programs and not enough money was getting to those who need it most. Stevens suggested that tribes consolidate to get the most from federal funding.
"But that's your decision, not mine," Stevens told the AFN gathering.
The Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, meeting in Anchorage this week, is devoting its annual three-day convention to the issue.
Since Stevens made his remarks, the tribes, regional corporations and other organizations have taken up the task of providing Stevens with alternatives, said AITC president Mike Williams.
"We need to work smarter, and we need to work harder" in finding efficiencies, he said, because consolidation of tribes is unacceptable.
He and others at the convention contend that tribes are better suited for receiving and spending federal funds for health care, housing and economic development than larger regional organizations because they're closer to the recipients.
"Who knows better how to manage your house than you?" said Joe Williams of Saxman.
Buddy Brown, president of the Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference, said his region is working in the opposite direction as the proposed regionalization, and is actively trying to pass its power down to its 42 constituent tribes.
"We're trying to work ourselves out of a job," he said, because village tribes have shown they can administer the programs as efficiently or more so than their regional nonprofit.
Ed Thomas, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said his nonprofit agency has started analyzing the cost of services delivered to its members in Southeast. With hard numbers, tribes can show that administrative costs are reasonable and that programs are getting to the people they're intended to help, he said.
"We need to address accountability," because that's what Stevens needs to make a case in Congress for continued funding without regionalization, Thomas said.
Since its October convention, AFN has been working with AITC, the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, the regional Native corporations and other organizations to find ways to improve service efficiency, said AFN co-chairman Trefon Angasan. Earlier this month, AFN sent a letter to Stevens regarding the group's efforts and asking for his suggestions on what direction they might go, he said.
It's too soon to know what efficiency proposals the Native community will put forward or how Stevens will react to them. But many observers of Native politics say they're impressed with the efforts to date.
"I'm thrilled at the way this has developed," said Will Mayo, former president of Tanana Chiefs Conference and until recently an adviser to former Gov. Tony Knowles.
Stevens has had concerns about tribal-service costs for years and Alaska Natives have long feared that he might act without their input, Mayo said.
"When the senator put out the offer to consider our ideas, that was a very positive sign," Mayo said.
He urged the AITC convention and others to keep working on the issue, because the alternative proposed by Stevens - consolidation of tribes - would be a severe blow to the goals of self-determination.