As the decision by two large tribal organizations to pull out of the Alaska Federation of Natives begins to sink in, there has been mixed reaction from Native leaders. Some have said the news caught them by surprise — but the growing tension between different groups at the AFN convention should have been a warning.
Two regional tribal organizations, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, have each cited different reasons for parting company with AFN.
Tlingit and Haida, which represents 35,000 tribal members in Southeast Alaska, says it no longer needs AFN’s advocacy, because it has developed its own capacity to advance its causes.
Tlingit and Haida President Richard Peterson said the tribe still plans to collaborate with AFN.
“I don’t want it to look like a divorce,” said Peterson. “I keep using the analogy, where the kids who grew up and are moving out of the house. We might still come home for cooked meal or to do laundry now and again, right?”
Peterson said Tlingit and Haida wants to divert the money it has paid in dues to AFN to work on region-specific issues.
The Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents villages in Interior Alaska, said in a statement that it was ending its membership in AFN to focus on protecting salmon and subsistence. Tanana Chiefs also said it wasn’t satisfied with AFN’s efforts to act on resolutions that have been passed over the years to protect the Alaska Native subsistence lifestyle.
Some longtime leaders in AFN have called the move to pull out of AFN a mistake. Paul Ongtooguk, an Alaska Native historian, agrees. He worries that the benefits of AFN are being taken for granted.
“We’re about really one-fifth of the population in Alaska,” he said. “So, if we’re going to influence things, punch above our weight, we have to have a kind of unity that reflects a sense of shared purpose.”
In recent years, disputes between competing Native groups have arisen during AFN’s annual convention. Since 2019, three regional corporations have pulled out of AFN — the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Doyon and the Aleut Corporation.
Collectively, the three corporations have a large footprint in Alaska. ASRC is the state’s wealthiest private corporation, and Doyon is Alaska’s largest private landowner. Both have heavy interests in oil development.
At AFN’s annual gathering this past October, a debate broke out on the convention floor over salmon shortages in Western and Interior Alaska, which pitted several Native groups against each other. The Aleut Corporation’s delegation turned their backs to the convention in protest over a resolution to address the food crisis. The corporation withdrew from AFN a short time later.
Ongtooguk said hot debates at the convention are nothing new, but the growing number of groups which have left AFN raises questions about the organization’s health.
“Is it adapting? Is it reflecting the broad spectrum of interest of Alaska Native peoples and organizations?” Ongtookguk said. “And by pulling out, it’s a way of voting publicly, a lack of confidence.”
Ongtooguk called the decision to pull out short-sighted — and said if there is a crisis in the future, these organizations will need a group like AFN to speak as one voice for Alaska Natives. He said the public infighting weakens the political power of AFN, which is still considered one of the most influential Native organizations in the nation.
AFN’s longtime president, Julie Kitka, said she’s withholding comment about the two tribes which have pulled out of AFN until after the AFN board meets next week.