Alaska Federation of Natives celebrates 50 years

On the morning of Oct. 18, 1966, Emil Notti, an Athabascan born in Koyukuk, called the first gathering of the Alaska Federation of Natives to order. Almost exactly five decades later, he is slated to give the keynote speech today at the 50th annual convention in Fairbanks.

“No, it does not feel like 50 years has gone by,” said Notti, now in his 80s, reflecting on a whirlwind of change.

Playing a pivotal part in what eventually became the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that passed 45 years ago in 1971, Notti first became interested in Native issues — including education, housing, health care, and open discrimination — after serving his country in the U.S. Navy and working as an electronic engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration.

“I had young kids and I thought, I got to make a better day for them,” he explained.

He served as the president of the Cook Inlet Association and chair of the Alaska Native Housing Committee. Soon after becoming involved with these organizations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs produced a decision-making report regarding how tens of millions of acres of federal land would be handled in Alaska.

“I had no idea what to do with it,” Notti said. “I did not know anything about the law. I was an engineer.”

Concern was building in the villages because this was not the first time in their history, he said, that government decisions would have a major and negative impact on their lifestyle. Notti explained how there would be more competition for food in terms of hunting and fishing, and there was uncertainty about what would happen with the ancestral property, even burial grounds, if the state was selling off vast tracts without consulting the residents.

After carefully thinking about it, he concluded, “If we had any rights and land, we should have something to say about what that final solution should be.”

So that summer, he wrote a letter to 14 leaders around Alaska, suggesting that they all meet to discuss the pending problems.

Howard Rock, the prominent editor and publisher of the Tundra Times, drew attention to the topic through frequent articles. As an editorial in the Sept. 16, 1966, issue said, “We think the October conference of Native Association leaders will spark action where lethargy existed heretofore.”

Indeed, not just a dozen or so individuals arrived in Anchorage, but several hundred convened to establish the AFN, the largest gathering of Native leaders in the state to date.

“I was surprised,” Notti said of the turnout, “but when I think about it, conditions were right for people to get involved.”

The organization, which officially formed within six months of the gathering in Anchorage, created the perception of a single voice that could not be ignored by the Department of the Interior or state representatives. The AFN, with Notti serving as its first president, acquired a seat at the table.

Four years and many, many meetings and hearings later, both around Alaska and in Washington, D.C., the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

“The settlement was not negotiated,” said Notti. “There was no give and take. It was a unilateral settlement handed out by Congress. True, we had our say, we had testimony, we had positions,” he said, but the lack of real negotiation is the primary point he would change if he could go back in time.

Positively, however, the state-chartered regional and village corporations that were created as part of the act are now integral to Alaska’s economy, with payroll serving Native and non-Natives alike, he said.

“Look at their office buildings; they are part of the structure of the city, part of the landscape,” Notti said. “I think the corporations have a big opportunity and should strive to become models of corporate governance.”

So what does Notti, father of six and grandfather of eight, say to the current generation and those who will follow in his footsteps?

“Stay involved, get your training and get your education,” he replied.

And how does he envision the future?

“Well in the next 50 years, I hope the Natives are on equal footing with the rest of the citizens as far as jobs are concerned,” he said.

There are high unemployment rates and economic development has not diminished these rates, he noted, pointing out that 400,000 have come to Alaska since the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, but villages are still disproportionally unemployed.

“Welfare is not the answer,” he stressed, a point he has publically made for decades. “They need job training, they need to be hired.”

That starts with opportunity and adequate job training centers in various regions, with the state taking the lead in funding these centers and keeping them up and running, he said: “To have a healthy state, we have to have people working.”

And they can be in any industry, construction, teaching, etc., that is pertinent to an industrialized, first world economy.

The AFN convention is the largest representative gathering of Natives in the United States. While the initial meeting in 1966 attracted a few hundred participants, thousands now gather annually to share stories, discuss important topics, learn from leaders and set the course for the future while facing the challenges ahead.

A representative of today’s generation and sharing the stage with Notti is Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, who was born and raised in Nome. Alvanna-Stimpfle was on a trip to Iceland when the Journal contacted her for comment. She graciously shared her thoughts via e-mail.

With a master’s in applied economics from Johns Hopkins, Alvanna-Stimpfle served as a legislative assistant for Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Washington, D.C.

She also took part in organizing the Arctic Imperative Summit to bring Arctic and coastal Alaskan issues to the forefront of American policy. She serves on the Nome Port Commission and is an elected member of the King Island Traditional Council.

“What a blessing it is to know who we are,” she wrote. “I am a King Island Inupiaq woman. The strength of my identity has survived colonization by the U.S. government. It has survived a forced relocation off our island. It has survived generations of racism in the wild west community of Nome.

“Yet the joy, love and pride that lives within our King Island community spirit remains strong. It is alive when we come together to sing and dance. It is alive when we come together to share our Native foods. It is alive when we share our humor with our cousins and family relations.”

“The next generation of Alaska Natives is to inherit our traditions, our languages, and our lands,” she wrote. “We also will inherit the responsibility to manage city and tribal governments, Native corporations, health and fishery institutions. These institutions collectively represent billions of dollars of wealth.

“By their very nature they are western democratic institutions, which require us to be engaged citizens and active shareholders. The responsibility of my generation is to ensure that our institutions remain firmly guided by our traditional values. Our responsibility is to the land and to our way of life.”

Alvanna-Stimpfle explained that this means actively participating in and demanding accountability from governing boards, including law enforcement.

“Traditional access to our lands, rivers, and oceans must be honored within the law as our inherent right as indigenous people,” she wrote. “Our recent history as Alaska Native people has not only been traumatic to our human spirit, but it has resulted in a complex regulatory structure that impedes our way of life.

“Our hunters face criminal penalties by federal and state agencies. This must stop. Our leaders must navigate management bodies for fish, birds, and land and sea mammals to ensure that we have continued access to live our way of life.”

Every Native plays a part in building the future, she noted. “Alaska Native peoples as well as the institutions that represent us will remain pillars of strength and stability in the Alaskan economy,” she wrote. “We are not only blessed with knowing who we are, but my generation is blessed with the political and economic power to define a future on our terms. It is time we assert it.”

Stephanie Prokop is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. She can be reached at stephanie.prokop@alaskajournal.com.

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