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Response to tribal government departures: Alaska Federation of Natives takes indirect approach

When two major tribal organizations pulled out of the Alaska Federation of Natives on May 8, many wondered how AFN’s board would react. In numbers alone, the departure of Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) and the Tanana Chiefs Conference leaves a huge gap.

With 35,000 members in Southeast Alaska and worldwide, Tlingit and Haida is the largest regional tribal government in Alaska. Tanana Chiefs represents 39 communities in Interior Alaska, a region that’s more than a third of the size of the whole state. Their decision to leave AFN comes after three regional Alaska Native Corporations quit AFN – the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Doyon and the Aleut Corporation.

Although AFN still remains the state’s largest Native organization, the exodus of five major, dues-paying organizations has its membership asking questions, but so far AFN has said very little about it publicly.

After AFN held its quarterly board meeting on May 15, it only mentioned the departures briefly in a news release, describing the group as the “five regional corporations and regional non-profits who have resigned their membership.”

The statement did not address the matter directly, except to say early AFN leaders reflected on the organization’s history during its meeting.

Emil Notti, one of the founders of the Alaska Federation of Natives, making a presentation in Washington D.C. at AFN's Alaska Day summit held on March 1-2.
Courtesy of the Alaska Federation of Natives
Emil Notti, one of the founders of the Alaska Federation of Natives, making a presentation in Washington D.C. at AFN's Alaska Day summit held on March 1-2.

Emil Notti, the first president of AFN, said he was one of those called upon to make a brief presentation. Later, he said he had aimed his talk at today’s leaders.

“They’re living the dream that their grandparents sacrificed for,” Notti said.

Notti says those sacrifices came at great personal cost for AFN’s early leaders, who went mostly unpaid for their efforts. Some even mortgaged their homes. And they weren’t alone, he said. Native families across the state gave what few dollars they had in a grassroots effort that helped AFN in 1971, to win one of the largest land claims settlements in U.S. history.

In comparison, Notti says today’s leaders have good educations and high-paying jobs, things they take for granted.

“AFN is a gift to them from their ancestors and grandfathers, who donated money to make a strong organization,” Notti said. “They should do what they can to keep it.”

For Notti, Tlingit and Haida’s departure from AFN struck a personal note, echoing back from 1968, not long after the formation of AFN. At the time, members debated whether the Central Council should be allowed to join AFN’s land claims fight. Opponents said Southeast Natives had already received a court settlement to compensate them for lands taken by the federal government.

Notti, along with another early AFN leader, Willie Hensley, fought on behalf of Tlingit and Haida. They felt the settlement was unfair, because it didn’t include any land, and the $7.5 million in cash was just a fraction of the land’s worth.

As president of AFN, Notti cast the deciding vote to allow Tlingit and Haida to join AFN in its efforts to win a settlement. He says he’s never regretted the decision, because Tlingit and Haida’s expertise helped to create a stronger AFN, which ultimately won the land claims fight. It also brought Southeast Natives more land and money.

“These organizations are banded together, and if you lose that statewide organization, little by little, you will lose your power,” Notti said.

Rosita Worl, who also spoke to the AFN board, agrees with Notti.

“It was that unity of Alaska Native people coming together,” said Worl. “What would have happened if AFN had moved ahead without the largest region?”

Worl is head of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a non-profit founded by Sealaska, the regional corporation for Southeast Alaska. She says Tlingit and Haida’s departure from AFN affects both Sealaska shareholders and tribal members, who should have been included in a wider conversation.

“Everyone was startled and none of us had any inkling of it,” said Worl.

The two tribal groups, which pulled out in May, issued statements about their decision to leave AFN. Both said they believe they can be more effective advocating for their own interests, but Tanana Chiefs did have a specific complaint. It said AFN wasn’t doing enough to protect subsistence and salmon runs.

Worl says she understands the frustrations over subsistence, but says the issues are complicated and not easy to resolve. Worl, who has served as a past co-chair of AFN’s subsistence committee, says overall AFN has a good track record.

“AFN has stood in staunch opposition to forces that would try to take away Native subsistence rights,” she said. “In my mind, there's still work to be done -- and I have to say I was really proud AFN’s more recent actions to get tribal recognition, to have a state legislative act that supports and recognizes tribes.”

Worl says special interest groups, which have long sought to weaken the Alaska Native subsistence priority, are still a threat.

“It's frightening to think how the forces that have tried to take away our subsistence rights, how they can see these fissures and come at us again,” Worl said. “I still worry about that. AFN has kind of been the ace in the hole that can rally the troops.”

But when conflict erupted on the AFN convention floor last October over the Western and Interior Alaska salmon crisis, pitting different Native groups against each other, AFN came under fire for how it managed the clash. Members from the Aleut Corporation turned their backs on the convention in protest, Not long afterwards, the corporation withdrew from AFN.

And this May, when Tlingit and Haida and the Tanana Chiefs Conference announced their exit from AFN, it fueled speculation that the move was meant to undermine AFN’s longtime president, Julie Kitka.

Worl says she hopes that’s not true, because Kitka has been highly effective. She pointed to AFN’s Alaska Day summit in Washington DC this March, which gave a large group of Alaska Native leaders a chance to sit down in the same room with six White House cabinet members and four generals.

“We have someone at the leadership helm who can pick up the phone and call the White House and can command that kind of presence of national leaders,” said Worl, who used the opportunity AFN provided at this year’s Alaska Day to meet with three generals. Worl said she discussed Sealaska Heritage Institute’s efforts seek an apology from the US military for its bombing of Kake, Angoon and Wrangell in the 1880’s.

Worl says she also sat across from Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s transportation secretary.

“Isn’t that a testament to AFN clout? And you have to look across the country,” Worl said, “There is no other state that has a unified Native organization that brings all the tribes together within a state.”

Although AFN initially formed to fight for land claims, its role has broadened over the years to face many new challenges, such as the Arctic’s growing vulnerability from climate change and recent military threats from Russia and China, part of why some of the nation’s top military leaders attended Alaska Day meetings.

Tlingit and Haida President Richard Peterson (right) and AFN Co-Chair Joe Nelson (left) seated next to each other at AFN's Alaska Day summit held in Washington D.C. from March 1-2.
Tlingit and Haida President Richard Peterson (right) and AFN Co-Chair Joe Nelson (left) seated next to each other at AFN's Alaska Day summit held in Washington D.C. from March 1-2.

The president of Tlingit and Haida, Richard Peterson, also had a seat at the table at AFN’s Alaska Day summit. At the time, Tlingit and Haida had not yet withdrawn from AFN.

Peterson says he expects AFN will continue to invite Tlingit and Haida to such events. He also noted that ASRC, which is still not a member of AFN, was given a platform during Alaska Day.

Despite the change in membership status, Peterson says he hopes to continue to work with AFN and its president, Julie Kitka.

“If Julie calls me right now, I’m going to take her call. I have nothing but love and respect for Julie,” he said.

“I get it’s a big deal. But it’s really not a big deal,” Peterson said. “To me this wasn’t an anti-AFN move. This was a pro Tlingit & Haida move.”

Peterson says the change reflects Tlingit and Haida’s growth as an organization.

“This isn’t a divorce from AFN,” he said. “We view ourselves as the kids. We’ve graduated from high school. We’ve graduated college, and we’re moving out. Once in a while, we’re going to come home, and ask to do some laundry and have dinner.”

Peterson says this new relationship doesn’t stop AFN and Tlingit and Haida from working together to advocate for Alaska Natives.

“Of course, we’re going to stand alongside AFN. We’re going to stand alongside our relatives from across the state,” said Peterson, who says Southeast issues will still be his main focus.

Peterson also insists that the Tlingit and Haida’s departure isn’t due to financial hardship or the inability to pay dues.

“I would just rather use those dollars in building my army than building others,” Peterson said.

He added, it’s not just the money, but also the commitment of time and effort to work with AFN.

But at the same time, Peterson says he’s not abandoning AFN.

“Don’t be surprised to see me walking the halls of AFN. I just won’t be voting,” he said.

To hear more of President Richard Peterson’s interview with KNBA's Rhonda McBride, listen here.  Editor’s note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tlingit and Haida President Richard Peterson discusses reasons for the tribal government's decision to withdraw from the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Going forward for AFN, there is a certain amount of redundancy built into its structure that can help to insulate it from a complete collapse.

Although three regional corporations and two tribal organizations have left the fold, individual tribes and village corporations are free to remain members of AFN and represent the same constituencies.

While the complete story about the recent departures from AFN has yet to come into focus, early leaders like Emil Notti hope the organizations will take inspiration from the old-fashioned way of doing business.

“I think one of the reasons they’re pulling out of AFN is because they feel they don’t need it,” Notti said.

He says, neither the regional corporations, nor the tribal organizations, have the kind of collective power that AFN has to rally support for Native causes.

“They need to stay unified in order to influence policy,” Notti said. “Don’t abandon it without talking -- by sitting down and talking it over amongst themselves.”

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.