AFN attendees urge unity at convention as underlying tension simmers

A crowd of people listen in on a conference
Attendees at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

During this year’s annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention, there was one clear message coming from members who remain: unity and cooperation.

But behind that message, relations are strained between AFN and some tribal entities and corporations in Alaska.

“At this point in time, there is some uncomfortable tension between AFN and some tribes and some corporations,” said Beverly Hoffman who is on the Bethel Native Corp.’s board of directors. “But at this day and time, it’s really important to unify on common ground and we talk about fish, we talk about the land, and protecting the annual convention, our ways of life, that’s what we fight for.”

That uncomfortable tension Hoffman is talking about wasn’t immediately obvious at this year’s convention. That’s because the organizations that have disagreements with AFN have withdrawn their memberships and their leadership wasn’t present at this year’s convention.

Among those tribal organizations are the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska, which withdrew its membership from AFN earlier this year.

President and CEO Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson questioned the need for membership in AFN.

“You know we’ve been told that if we’re not there at the table, we’re not there in the room or whatever. My executive council asked, ‘Well, what room do we need to be in?’ because we’ve met with the Secretary of the Treasury, we’ve met with Commerce, we’ve met with Transportation.”

Peterson was in Anchorage for meetings with Department of Interior officials, including Secretary Deb Haaland, but he didn’t attend AFN’s convention. He said Tlingit & Haida has outgrown it.

“I think we are stronger together and certainly that’s the criticism I have heard of us pulling out, but the reality is we don’t have to be members of anything to stand with other tribes.” he said. “So, we’ve been building our capacity for years and continuing to do that and we have a great legal team now, we have a strong governance department now and we’re really good at advocating and doing our own work, quite honestly.”

Since 2019, nearly half a dozen tribal organizations have left AFN for various reasons.

Tanana Chiefs Conference Chief & Chairman Brian Ridley said the tribes he represents voted to withdraw – primarily over salmon.

“We feel like the conservation of the salmon has been entirely on the backs of our subsistence people in the villages along the rivers, because we haven’t fished for years and all we were trying to do is trying to get others to share in the conservation so that the salmon will come back,” Ridley said.

TCC is the largest tribal organization in Alaska’s Interior region. Last year, Ridley spoke in support of two AFN resolutions that called for efforts to reduce salmon bycatch to allow more fish to return to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Those passed during the convention, but debate was contentious and divided regions, including the Interior and the Aleutians and Pribilof Islands.

Since then, Ridley said his organization has been front and center at state board of fish and federal management meetings, but AFN has not been there to back them up.

“A step in the right direction would be them showing up and showing that subsistence, our fish, our game is important to our people, to AFN to see them at those same meetings fighting shoulder to shoulder with us,” he said.

The Alaska Federation of Natives first convened in 1966, when only 17 Native organizations came together. Today, AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman said the convention draws hundreds of member organizations and each one has specific and unique wants and needs. 

“There are times where there’s disagreement and we are not insensitive to that,” she said. “In fact we try to be very sensitive to that. And we are trying continually to improve our systems internally at the organization to be responsive to that and to improve ourselves for future engagement.”

One of AFN’s first co-chairs, Willie Hensley, said this kind of tension between members is nothing new.

“There’s always been disagreement…” he said. “Once in a while we have had regions pull out in the past…In fact at one point, we almost split into two statewide groups at one point in the ’70s. But I think usually reason prevails, because if we get fractured, and vulcanized, that diminishes our ability to represent Alaska and Alaska Natives.”

Alaska’s Indigenous population is regionally and culturally diverse, he said, with an array of concerns that transcend AFN.

“We have many different groups, small regions, big regions, some really modernized, some very traditional,” Hensley said. “AFN can’t solve all the problems.”

And Hensley said it would be a mistake to look only at divisive issues in place of challenges Alaska Natives share collectively.

Even so, strategic planning is underway at AFN. As part of that, the organization is circulating membership surveys this year. Questions include what members most value about the organization, what weaknesses the organization faces and ask for suggestions on goals for the AFN’s next five years.

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