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Analysis from Paul Ongtooguk: Why two tribal organizations have left the Alaska Federation of Natives

Panel discussion at 2022 AFN Convention.
Panel discussion at 2022 AFN Convention.

When two major tribal organizations pulled out of the Alaska Federation of Natives this week, it fueled speculation about the reasons why. The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and the Tanana Chiefs Conference each had a different explanation.

Tlingit and Haida said it no longer needed AFN, that it was ready to strike out on its own to advance its causes. Tanana Chiefs said it wanted to focus on protecting salmon and subsistence, and that AFN had not taken enough action on these issues.

Since 2019, a total of five organizations have withdrawn their membership from AFN. Along with the two tribal groups, three regional Native corporations have left -- the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Doyon and the Aleut Corporation.

The departures have raised questions about how AFN has handled internal disputes and the health of the organization, which was formed in 1966 to fight for Native land rights.

AFN’s efforts led to the passage of the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Today, it remains the largest and most influential Alaska Native organization. Every October, it holds the state’s largest convention.

Paul Ongtooguk recently retired as director of the Alaska Native Studies program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He calls the decision of two tribal organizations to pull out of AFN a "mistake." He says it's up to AFN to use this setback as an opportunity to reinvent itself.
Paul Ongtooguk recently retired as director of the Alaska Native Studies program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He calls the decision of two tribal organizations to pull out of AFN a "mistake." He says it's up to AFN to use this setback as an opportunity to reinvent itself.

KNBA’s Rhonda McBride talked with Paul Ongtooguk, an Alaska Native historian and a longtime observer of AFN, about these recent developments. Ongtooguk recently retired from the University of Alaska Anchorage as director of Alaska Native studies.

Rhonda McBride: You’ve said you believe the decision for Tlingit and Haida and Tanana Chiefs to pull out of AFN is short sighted. Why?

Paul Ongtooguk: One of the things that happens is we can take for granted the benefits of having a unified sense of Alaska Native communities on issues. We're not even close to the majority of the population. We’re about really one-fifth of the population in Alaska. So, if we're going to influence things, and punch above our weight, we have to have a kind of unity that reflects a sense of shared purpose. To the degree that AFN does, or does not represent that sense of unity, that’s OK when there isn’t real pressure on us as people. But when a crisis comes, it's hard to put together that kind of sense of unity that you really want to have at that moment. So, it's not thinking long term from people who are pulling out of it.

Rhonda McBride:  Aside from winning ANCSA, how has AFN leveraged its clout in recent years?   

Paul Ongtooguk: Well, probably the last time that there was a real sense of shared purpose was trying to prevent Joe Miller from becoming a Senator and having the support of Alaska Native communities and organizations to help Lisa Murkowski to run as an independent. I think that was probably the most substantial thing in the modern era that Native organizations have done on behalf of Alaska Native interests. If Miller had been elected, it would have been a disaster. He was anti-Alaska Native. He wanted people to be assimilated, probably still does. He wants everybody to be a Republican, to be more individually minded, rather than thinking about shared interests, peoples and cultures that long predate even the existence, not only of Alaska, but of the United States. Our tribes have been around for much longer than this new experiment called the United States, or even the State of Alaska.

Rhonda McBride:  When groups pull out of an established organization like AFN, what kind of message does that send?  

Paul Ongtooguk: Well, it can be understood that when organizations are pulling out, they're actually voting against (AFN), a sense that AFN is no longer serving as an honest broker between the various interests of Alaska Native organizations, that it isn't serving as a place where you can disagree, have those disagreements be honestly embraced, that AFN serves as this sort of fair referee in managing those concerns. If AFN is seen as already having decided on its own ideology and its own direction, then people will vote, organizations vote to withdraw from AFN. And it's only when a crisis happens that people realize the value of having a statewide voice that AFN can be.

It's also a concern about the general health of AFN. Is it adapting? Is it reflecting the broad spectrum of interests of Alaska Native peoples and organizations? And by pulling out, it's a way of voting publicly, a lack of confidence.

Rhonda McBride: So, you see this as a no-confidence vote from these groups? 

Paul Ongtooguk: Yeah, it's sort of the last way you get to send a message. It’s saying, yeah, this is a vote of no confidence. So, it should be a wake-up call, and it'll be interesting to see if it is.

Rhonda McBride: Julie Kitka has been president of AFN for a long time. Is one of the undercurrents of this about her leadership?

Paul Ongtooguk: Being the head of AFN is an impossible position to have, and it always has been. I don't want to criticize somebody who's in the ring, while I'm in the peanut gallery looking down at it. I understand that it's an enormous set of conflicts that are reflected in trying to run this organization. At the same time, I honestly, from an outside perspective, I haven’t seen what AFN is doing in terms of connecting with Alaska Native peoples outside of this annual get together. It’s no small thing. I haven’t seen that or have that sense that AFN is as broadly engaged as it has been in the past.

It’s easy to get insulated and pay more attention to other people, who are leading and are part of other Alaskan Native organizations. We have these meetings -- CEOs, boards of directors and president -- without having a broad, deep reach within Alaska Native communities and people. So, it's always hard to stay in touch when you're at that level. I understand that, but it's something that has to be done. And in the past few years, I don't know that it's been done all that well.

Also, at some point from a leadership perspective, who is Julie Kitka prepping to take over potentially? I don't know. I don't see any clear evidence. Who is she sharing the spotlight within AFN? Who’s that next person that she's sort of sponsoring to take over and, and to lead us into the future. Who's that 30-something that's being readied to take over. If there is somebody, I’m missing it.

Rhonda McBride: As far as other AFN leadership, it’s interesting that one of the Co-Chairs of AFN, is Joe Nelson, who is also the chairman of the board for the Sealaska Corporation – which represents the same region as Tlingit and Haida, which has just pulled out of AFN. Doesn’t that kind of put him in an awkward position with Tlingit and Haida’s president, Richard Peterson? Is this another sign of division? 

Paul Ongtooguk: Right. It would be interesting to know, if succession was informally or whatever, if it was moving from one traditional group to another, as the head of AFN.

Rhonda McBride: As a longtime observer of AFN, what puzzles you the most about this latest move. What do you want to know?

Paul Ongtooguk: One of the questions I have, and that I would imagine other people might have: Is this a temporary separation, or is this an actual divorce? You would know that things are really problematic, if the organizations that are now outside of AFN, and there's quite a number of them, have started trying to imagine a different statewide organization, a competing interest.

Every now and again, you'll see a statewide organization of Alaska Native tribal governments, and they just sort of burn brightly for a moment and then collapse on themselves. Nothing’s really come about that's substantial enough to actually be real competition to AFN. But if things keep pulling apart, to me that would be the question. Are you going to see an alternate organization as competition for that statewide voice?

It's hard to imagine it would ever happen, because AFN has always been that. But if an organization doesn't pull things together well enough, or long enough, then its legitimacy does get called into question. And I'm wondering, what's the breaking point? How many organizations pull out before something new gets created to fulfill that role?

I hope that AFN can just sort of reinvigorate itself, remake itself, to avoid that kind of outcome.

Rhonda McBride: Historically at AFN there has always been tension between tribes and the Native corporations. It’s sort of been a battle between the haves and the have nots, in which the corporations have lots of resources and the tribes have been cash poor. But in recent years, tribes in Alaska have been gaining in prominence, infused with cash from COVID money and, for example, big grants for tribal broadband programs. Some tribes have become very powerful, to the extent that they have a big impact on a community’s economy, even the state economy. It is also interesting that out of the five organizations that have pulled out of AFN, three are corporations and two are tribes. Collectively, they represent a lot of real estate in Alaska. It always seems to go back to the question at the beginning of AFN, was it a place where tribes and corporations could work together?  Or maybe it was an impossible mission.

Paul Ongtooguk: I don't know. I think that tension has always been there, and you have to throw in the nonprofit regionals, which reflect tribes in a sense, but they have their own interests as well. And the difference between the village corporations and the regionals is often no small thing either.

I always think about the former Yugoslavia, when somebody interviewing Marshall Tito, asked, “What happens to Yugoslavia after your leadership is over? And Tito supposedly said, “There is no Yugoslavia outside of my imagination.”

It sort of collapses into what we have now, these different nations. All the fissures finally broke things apart.

And I keep that in mind, when I think about an organization like AFN. There's nothing certain about the continuity or the cohesion of AFN. We take it for granted, but when it falls apart it, it shouldn't come as a surprise. I think it would be terrible in the long-term interests of Alaska Native peoples for it to happen. But it’s no easy thing to keep it together, and I understand and respect that.

Rhonda McBride: Explain what makes it hard to keep AFN together?

Paul Ongtogook: Well, because there are so many cultures. We have to understand that we're not like Hawaii, with a common cultural base and common core of language. We're, we're like Europe, with Italy and Finland, and Norway and Spain, and Portugal and Bulgaria, Germany and France. All are European, right? They’re all very different. The amazing thing is that there's any sort of common European organization at all.

And that's been the history of AFN. The amazing thing is that we ever created AFN. Look at

Arizona or New Mexico, or Washington or Oklahoma. How unified and strong are their statewide organizations representing the tribes? I see nothing that's a counterpart to AFN.

And I think the reason why we've been so much more effective in part, at the federal level and with Congress, is because we've had this organization, AFN representing a unified voice in a way that the tribes in other states simply have never achieved.

So, the standard model is to not have an AFN. AFN is the outlier within tribes in the United States. We’ve had some remarkable successes as Alaska Native peoples and organizations, because we’ve had this statewide unifying voice. So, it's a precious commodity. It's a precious thing to have, and you don't want to throw it away lightly, but it can fall apart internally, or it can lose coherence among those conflicting interests.

It's a very difficult position, and I respect anyone who can manage it -- and in Julie Kitka's case, manage it as long as she has. But the current question is, has it been too long? Is AFN not reinventing itself, well enough to reflect the current issues in a way that satisfies most of the Alaska Native peoples and organizations. And with the number of organizations that have pulled out, that’s a real open question.

Rhonda McBride: Is this a generational problem?  

Paul Ongtogook: I think that's a concern that's legitimate, and it's not the fault necessarily of this newer generation. There has to be a larger picture of things. I think our generation has failed the upcoming generation largely in thinking about what it means to be Alaska Native for the future.

I think the tension has always been ANCSA as the model. The use of corporations was intended to assimilate Alaska Native peoples, to move us from thinking of ourselves, our thousands of years of history, our own tribes and our own peoples -- to have us transform ourselves, so that we think quarterly profits or annual dividends -- and think more about capitalism and monetary success rather than to see ourselves as a “we.” Corporate individualism and individual success. Corporate CEO’s wanting to go from a two-car garage to four-car garage as a model. That's an underlying, potentially undermining part of that corporate model.

And tribes are wondering, how do we become relevant for this new generation? At least they should be. And the new generation is saying, “What's relevant about being a tribal member?”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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.