Alaska Leaders Attend White House Tribal Nations Conference

Tribal leaders from Alaska and the rest of the country had a chance this week talk with the highest powers in the federal government.

Nearly all of President Obama’s cabinet secretaries participated in the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, as did Obama himself.

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This was the fifth such conference in as many years. The gathering is an Obama initiative to reach out to tribes and show his administration is listening.  It includes break-out sessions with department and agency heads, and a presidential address. Ted Mala, who in past years represented Buckland, says the value is enormous.

“We’ve never had a president or an administration pay this much attention to us,” Mala said. “It’s given us access to the secretaries, and for the first time ever we have a voice, in my opinion.”

We had a degree of it with other administrations but this one has blown the doors open, and it’s incredible.

Will Micklin came representing the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes. He says the highlight for him was hearing the president mention contract support costs. It was a reference to the decades-long failure of the government to fully pay tribes for services they provide, primarily health care.

“We require that they fulfill obligations and their commitiments in order that we can most effectively govern ourselves, and it starts with paying your contractual obligations,” Micklin said.

Obama, though, only said he’d heard their call for full reimbursement and pledged to work with Congress to find a solution. Micklin says when tribal leaders show their faces every year it helps hold the president accountable for his promises. Micklin believes the conference can produce results.

“It’s beginning to. We know the president means what he says,” Micklin said. “We sometimes have difficulty with his key officials, and so we’re trying to close the gap between what the president promises and what his key officials deliver.”

Mary Ann Mills of the Kenaitze Tribe said the best part for her was a smaller session she attended with top Interior Department personnel.

“I was a little bit disappointed with the president Obama because he didn’t mention Alaska one time in his speech and we have so many issues there,” Mills said. “I thought he’d say something about our health care and about the violence against women and the high suicide rate, and I thought he would lend a little more support than he did.”

Just before the conference, Obama invited a dozen Native American leaders to the White House for a special meeting.

The only Alaskan among them wasn’t the leader of a tribe but a corporation: Chris McNeil, CEO of Sealaska. He says he focused on three issues: subsistence rights, changes to the 8a program that helps Native corporations win government contracts, and community development financing.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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