At its convention last year, AFN endorsed Dan Sullivan’s opponent in a tense campaign, and Congressman Don Young apologized to the audience for remarks he’d made about a teen’s suicide.
What a difference a year makes. Sullivan today addressed the audience as their junior U.S. senator, and Young was all smiles.
Sullivan focused his speech on one of his political strengths: military issues. More specifically, veterans.
“We have in this room, we have a room full of heroes,” he said. “We have state full of heroes. We have a country full of heroes.”
It was right in line with the convention them: Heroes in our Homeland. Sullivan mentioned that he’s a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserves and just finished five days of Reserve duty. But he used much of his speech to highlight the military service of Alaska Natives.
“Think about that,” he urged the audience. “Alaska Natives serve at higher rates than any other ethnic group in our military … that deserves another round of applause, doesn’t it?”
He named a few Native leaders who are vets — Bill Thomas, Emil Notti, Oliver Leavitt, Sam Kito, Walter Soboleff, both junior and senior. Some, Sullivan said, came home to racial discrimination and lack of opportunity.
“No matter how poorly you were treated by your government, when you were called to serve, you did it,” he said. “That is a special kind of patriotism.”
Sullivan says he wants to re-established National Guard units in rural Alaska, a goal he shares with Gov. Bill Walker, but the senator warns it will be a long, tough fight.
He drew applause when he spoke of a bill he sponsored to let Native vets of the Vietnam era apply for 160-acre allotments. The Alaska delegation to Congress has argued for years that many vets missed the deadline for applying in 1971 because they were serving their country.
“What’s a little bit disturbing to me is the Obama Administration is opposed to my bill, saying that it’s not equitable, that it’s not fair,” he said. “Let me tell you what’s not fair: Penalizing Alaska Natives for serving their country during one of the most controversial conflicts in our nation’s history when many other Americans did their best to avoid military during that time. That’s what’s not fair! ”
The administration also objects because the bill would allow claims on National forests and wildlife refuges. And the Interior Department says it’s finally finishing the claims of Native Vietnam vets who filed the last time Congress re-opened the application period for them, in the late ‘90s.
In an interview after the speech, Sullivan didn’t focus on last year’s AFN.
“Well look, I’m someone who always looks forward, right?” Sullivan said.
Young spoke briefly and, though cheerful, made several references to his own mortality. Or maybe just to the end of his career. It was hard to tell. But he did talk about being at the dawn of AFN.
“And I’m beginning to see the sunset, personally,” Young said. “But every time I think about it, I’m so happy what is coming behind me. The young people, the people who’ve gone to college, the people who are working, the people helping run the corporations (and) the village corporations, the people that have the belief and the pride in being an Alaska Native.”
Young is 82, but he just got married and he closed by saying he’d always be there for Alaska Natives, as long as God and Alaskans want him to stay.