FAIRBANKS, Alaska (CN) – The largest representative annual gathering in the United States of any native peoples, the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, began Thursday with the theme of its 53rd year “Good Government, Alaska Driven.”
“‘Good government’ refers to how well the state is meeting the needs of Alaskans. The Dunleavy administration tested the bounds of this principle in 2019,” the agenda states of Republican Governor Michael Dunleavy, whose first 10 months in office have resulted in efforts to recall him from office.
Alaska Native groups have been at odds with Dunleavy over his attempts to significantly cut government programs vital to rural Alaskans, many of whom live in remote Native villages. Cuts targeted the village public safety officer program that helps keep people safe in communities with no police presence, mental health and youth services, public radio and television and marine ferry services between coastal communities.
As is tradition, the governor addressed the attendees at the start of the convention accompanied by his wife of 31 years, Rose. It was noted during introductions that Rose Dunleavy is the state’s first Alaska Native first lady.
Dozens of protesters rose from their seats a few minutes into Dunleavy’s speech, turning their backs and raising their fists. Some began chanting, and one person banged on a drum until federation co-chair Will Mayo stepped onto the stage, interrupting the governor’s speech to admonish the protesters for showing disrespect.
“I respect your right to protest in this way, but I want to ask you with respect to please express your views at the voting booth,” Mayo, said. “Please express your views in a productive way and please don’t come into our house and disrespect our guest.”
Dunleavy resumed his speech without acknowledging the protest, which was prompted by a handout circulating prior to the speech asking attendees to stand, turn their backs and raise their fists for four minutes to symbolize the $444 million Dunleavy vetoed from the state budget earlier this year.
“Stand with Alaska Native leaders to show what we really think of Dunleavy’s leadership,” the handout said, adding a reference to the recall campaign against the governor: “#RecallDunleavy.”
Because the convention draws thousands from across the state, it is a must on the schedules of all major political figures in the Last Frontier, including members of Alaska’s congressional delegation. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young are set to speak over the course of the three-day event.
The federation began with the goal of reclaiming ancestral lands. In the years since 1966, it has become a forum to collaborate on common issues that tribes face with federal, state and local governments as well as social ills like alcoholism and domestic violence that affect their people.
The Alaska Federation of Natives is the largest statewide Native organization in Alaska. Its membership includes 185 federally recognized tribes, 153 village corporations, 12 regional corporations, and 12 regional nonprofit and tribal consortiums that contract and compact to run federal and state programs.
It is governed by a 38-member board, which is elected by members at the annual convention held each October. Annually, the convention draws about 5,000 attendees with Alaska’s two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, alternating hosting duties.