Alaska Native, American Indian Leaders Organize Priorities

As the federal budget is scrutinized for savings, there’s a mad-scramble going on in Washington to protect programs from drastic cuts.  This week Alaska Native leaders joined with the National Congress of American Indians to speak up for the Indian Budget and tell Congress and the White House about their other priorities.  But they couldn’t entirely escape the recent Congressional scrutiny on Alaska Native Corporations.

The National Congress of American Indians is focusing its sights on three issues:  protecting funding for Native programs, restoring the Interior Secretary’s authority to take land into trust for all federally recognized tribes, and protecting Native women.

Edward Thomas of Juneau is president of the Tlingit Haida Central Council, and says speaking with a unified voice rings more powerfully.

“If you look at 500-plus tribes, 550 tribes, you’re going to find that everyone has different priorities.  And so it’s important that we don’t come back here and give Congress mixed messages on really what our priorities are,” Thomas said.

This week Thomas and other Alaska Native leaders met with members of Congress and their staffs to give their input – and gauge how tough some of the upcoming fights will be.  Thomas says the Congressional delegations of Alaska and Hawaii didn’t paint a doom and gloom

“I have not heard the “these are tough times” message from the people that we’ve spoken to. Their message to us is we’re going to do our best to hold our own because of the government to government relationship the federal government has with tribes. And so those are the messages we’re hearing, and we’re encouraged by it.  But you know as well as I do they’re small voice compared to the rest of the Congress.  So we really need to work with them to educate Congress on our issues,” Thomas said.

It wasn’t just tribal leaders who came to Washington – so did representatives of Alaska Native Corporations, like Rosita Worl, Vice Chair of Sealaska in Southeast.

She was part of a meeting this week with President Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs, Kim Teehee.

Worl says the White House meeting with Alaska Federation of Natives focused on what happens when money is tight and the need for hunting and fishing is strong.

“The overriding issue was subsistence.  Subsistence hunting and fishing and the protection and rights of protection to sustain themselves, to maintain their spiritual relationship with the land and the environment.  We said yes we know that we’re facing budget cuts.  If we can’t feed ourselves from the resources from the land then we’re really in trouble.  It was a powerful meeting that we had,” Worl said.

The reputation of Alaska Native Corporations has been under fire in Washington as members of Congress call for hearings investigating last week’s arrest of a subsidiary employee in a major bribery and corruption scheme.  A former executive of EyakTek, part of the Eyak Corporation of Alaska, was busted with Army Corps of Engineers employees for padding federal contracting invoices to the tune of $20 million.

The head of Eyak Corporation is Rod Worl, who has not talked to the media.  Rosita Worl is his mother.

“I know he is constrained, as well as his board members, they’re constrained by what they can say.  I know they’d love to tell the whole story, but right now I know their legal counsel is telling them what they can and can’t say,” Worl said.

Worl calls the corporation a victim.  She says the EyakTek scandal has not overshadowed this week’s meetings and messages, or tained the Corporation mantel.

Albert Kookesh agrees with Worl.  The Democratic State Senator is on Sealaska’s Board of Directors and says he feels no association with the EyakTek arrest.

“See the problem here is there were no Natives included in that fall out.  These were non-Native people.  And then we get the blame for it, they paint us with the same brush.  If three members of the native Eyak family had gotten arrested because they’d done something wrong maybe I would’ve felt bad about it,” Kookesh said.

But even as the corporate leaders join with tribal leaders to plead the case of Alaska Native priorities, from subsistence to funding for Indian programs, the Alaska Native Corporations are under scrutiny. When asked if he was meeting with some of the critics of ANCs to counter their message, Kookesh said he didn’t have the chance.

And the Congressional attention on EyakTek continues – on Thursday Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey asked the Department of Homeland Security to hand over documents and emails about how business went down at EyakTek.  In a statement Markey said Alaska Native Corporations should be representing their people, but that there are “real questions” about whether this particular company did that.

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