Sullivan Emphasizes the Power of Unity at Alaska Federation of Natives Convention

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA—U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), in a speech yesterday at the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) annual convention, celebrated AFN’s history of being a uniting force in Alaska, and spoke about how such unity among Alaska Native communities, as well as with the state and federal government, has resulted in great successes for all Alaskans.

The successes Sullivan highlighted included battling COVID-19; securing funding for broadband, water and sewer in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA); defending resource development projects, such as the Willow Project; and recovering from the devastation of Typhoon Merbok in portions of Western Alaska. Sullivan also stressed the need to remain united to combat sexual abuse and domestic violence in Alaska and to solve a fishing crisis that has negatively impacted the life, cultures and economies of parts of Alaska.

Click here to watch Sen. Sullivan’s remarks.


Thank you, Ana. It’s great to hear from my good friend—I don’t know if he’s up there anymore, Brian Schatz, who is a strong friend of Alaska Natives. I want to begin by thanking the AFN leadership—Ana, Joe, Julie, so many others. 

It's great to be back in person, isn't it? I don't know about you, but I have Zoom fatigue. I'm sick of Zoom. We need to be in-person here. And it's great to see so many of our elders and youth and mothers and fathers. I just want to thank you. 

I want to talk about some of the things that we've been working on in Washington, but also just to recognize what a seminal event in our state for everybody that AFN is. It's certainly one of the highlights of the year for me, and for my wife, Julie, who is all over the AFN convention hall, seeing all her cousins and buying Christmas gifts for our friends and family.

I know that we feel the loss today of someone who isn't in the room with us. Congressman Young's sudden passing has left a hole in our state, in our country, and certainly at AFN. We miss him terribly. I appreciate Representative Peltola’s tribute to him yesterday. And I am wearing my AFN bolo in Don Young's honor. We all miss him and his family and friends. Thank you for keeping his legacy alive. 

I also want to mention another very tragic, sudden, shocking loss of another great friend of our Alaska Native community, and that's former state Senator Ben Stevens, a great leader in our state. And we—Julie and I—respectfully ask for prayers for the Stevens family as they're going through an incredible, shocking loss.

I believe that the theme of this year is something we can all celebrate: celebrating our unity. And it's a perfect theme for this time in the history of AFN. To understand why unity is such an important theme, particularly as we work on federal issues, I think it's good to go back in time, to the formation of AFN and its goals which, at its core, were all about unity. 

Many of you know this story, because many of our elders here today were part of this story. Fifty-six years ago, more than 400 Alaska Natives representing 17 Native organizations gathered right here in Anchorage to address Alaska Native land claims. Unity was vital, but it wasn't a given. 

This is from a Tundra Times editorial shortly after that first AFN conference. It’s titled, “A Great Achievement.” When you listen to the editorial, it's all about unity. Here's what it said: “The delegates of the statewide Native conference in Anchorage last week came from all parts of Alaska, from the Arctic to the Panhandle. When the conference was over, there was no doubt that unity of the Native organizations had been achieved, a fact that has been long-sought by our people. It is what we have been desiring all along. It is a hard-fought achievement, unity. It is worth keeping, because the strength that it represents will be invaluable in helping us gain the benefits that we wish for, for our people.” 

So for Howard Rock, who no doubt wrote that very influential Tundra Times editorial, unity equaled strength, and strength equaled power, and power equaled results for Native people.  

Fast forward two years later, after that first AFN conference, 1968 and 1969, a time of great social turmoil in America, when proud and determined First Peoples from all across our state traveled to Anchorage, and to Fairbanks, to give their testimony in field hearings held by Congress about Alaska land claims and other issues.

[There were] dozens of women and men, young and old, all of them testifying over this time period. In front of U.S. senators and congressmen, telling their stories, how a proud and strong people lived off of this land and had been able to thrive in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, for thousands of years. There was a special American patriotism on display at these hearings, as you all know, something I love to talk about.  

The Native people of Alaska, have always been very patriotic, for decades serving in the U.S. military at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the country. Yes, special patriotism. Even when America wasn't treating our Native people well and with respect, this service and special patriotism has remained a hallmark of Native culture, Native heritage and Native tradition for decades. Now, I know we have hundreds of such American patriots in the audience today. If you are an Alaska Native veteran or a family of an Alaska Native veteran, please stand or raise your hand and be recognized with a strong round of applause. 

Back in 1968, members of Congress holding these hearings in Alaska were not aware of your special patriotism. But in one of my favorite quotes from any congressional hearing ever, the president of the Arctic Native Brotherhood, a proud Marine, Jerome Trigg, educated these members of Congress about the Alaska Native tradition of military service at a time in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, when many Americans were actually avoiding military service. 

Here's what Jerome Trigg said to the senators in a field hearing in Alaska: “We have showed our patriotism as proudly as any Americans on earth. We have answered the call of duty with pride in serving our country. We answered the call in World War II 100 percent. Every man in every village, old and young, volunteered with the Alaska National Guard. I have never heard of an Alaska Native burning the draft card or burning the flag of our country. We love our lands, and we will fight and sacrifice to protect them.” 

Now, with the determination of a tough Marine, and the recognition of the moral high ground Alaska Native military service brought to him and his people, he concluded his testimony before the senators with this statement: “Sometimes I think the wrong people are running this hearing and taking our testimony. It seems that we should be the ones on the bench, and you people should be in front of us giving us testimony.”

I love that! Powerful.

This testimony was said to have brought tears to the eyes of so many in the audience. 

So how were Alaska Natives able to unite? Here's how my late, beautiful and beloved mother-in-law, Mary Jane Fate, put it in her testimony back then, when she was just 36 years old: “The unique circumstances of Alaska Native life and culture have led to unity and the development of leadership, not only for our own people, but for the entire citizenry in which we find ourselves.” 

In other words, unity equaled strength, not only for Alaska Native people, but for the whole state. Everybody working together for common purpose. 

Such beautiful and powerful wisdom from Mary Jane Fate has been born out again and again. When the Alaska Native communities unify, particularly unify together with the state and with our congressional delegation, we can get very important things done. 

For example, because of unity, on December 18, 1971, during that year's AFN convention, 600 delegates listened to a tape from President Nixon when he told the delegates, “I want you to be the first to know that I just signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.” 

That was ANCSA, a little over 50 years ago. While it hasn't been everything that everybody wanted, it has helped achieve enormous progress. And it again signifies that when all of us are working together, we can get a lot done. 

Let me highlight a few recent examples that were achieved as the result of unity. First, as Governor Dunleavy mentioned in his remarks yesterday, I think it’s important to talk first about the unity that occurred over the last three years during a very challenging time for all of us. That was dealing with this global pandemic. With the history of what pandemics have done to Rural Alaska, it was a particularly stressful and challenging time. Over the past three years, we all knew the specter of the 1918 Spanish flu was lurking. That legacy, over 100 years ago, devastated entire Alaska Native villages. 

So, what we did together, was to work, particularly on the delegation side, to make sure the federal government knew the history of Rural Alaska and did not forget about Rural Alaska during the pandemic. Now, as many of you know, I'm a Marine. As a Marine, I know how to take orders, and I know how to give orders. I took my orders from all of you during that time. Those orders were focused on ensuring that all Alaska communities got the resources they needed to survive and recover from the pandemic. 

So I got the orders. Then I started to give the orders. My team and I and the whole delegation—Senator Murkowski, Congressman Young—we did not put down the telephone for months. Everybody from the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, cabinet officials, CEOs of major lab companies—we were telling them daily, you can’t forget about Rural Alaska, Rural Alaska needs resources. I, and I'm sure Don Young—I don't want to call Lisa a pain in anyone's rear—but I became a pain in the rear. So did Don, we all did, to make sure whether it was testing, vaccines, or other resources, the brave people of Rural Alaska were not forgotten. And you weren't.

Now, we all know we lost many wonderful people during the pandemic, too many people, some of our elders. But there's no doubt that the pandemic would’ve been worse for all of Alaska had all of us—state, federal, tribes, Alaska Native health organizations—not been unified. I think that's a really powerful lesson that we learned.

Let me talk about another powerful lesson that we learned from the pandemic. It was, in some ways, a silver lining about a huge shortcoming that we already knew existed in Rural Alaska.  But the pandemic put it in stark relief, and that relates to the issues of infrastructure.

When the CDC says to Americans, you need to wash your hands five times a day during the pandemic and we said, wait, we don't have running water, or flush toilets in our communities! How can we do that?

Or when the federal government says you have to go home, you can't go to school, you can't go to work—get in front of your computer and do everything on the internet. And you say, wait a minute, we don't have internet connectivity! So these issues became highlighted even more during the pandemic. It has provided us an opportunity to press on the pressing needs that we all know exist with regard to infrastructure in Alaska.

Let me talk about a few of these briefly. Water and sewer. This has been a passion of mine since I started in the Senate almost eight years ago. It's [an issue] of basic fairness. Think about it. You have senators, and it's fine with me, they make the argument—hey, my state, my city, we need to upgrade our existing infrastructure. You hear that a lot. My argument has been—wait, what about communities that have no infrastructure? What if you have no water and sewer, and, by the way, from some of the most patriotic communities in America, because everybody who lives there serves in the military.

So what we've been able to do—and this argument is now starting to work—is to enact new programs, and hundreds of millions of dollars of federal assistance, focused on finally getting water and sewer and flush toilets and running water to every community in Alaska. We're going to keep working hard on that until it is done. 

The same arguments apply for other infrastructure, what I call 21st century infrastructure—broadband and internet connectivity. As we have debated funding for the internet in the Congress, and broadband, and cell service, some senators have been saying, I want to take the service of my communities from 4G service to 5G service.

My argument has been, what about communities who have “no G?” Come on, we have to start first with the communities that don't have anything. And, unfortunately, most of those communities exist in our state—in Rural Alaska. We were able to prioritize communities with no internet service in the recent infrastructure bill that Senator Murkowski, Congressman Young and I worked on.

Here's a great opportunity: In the next five years, because of that infrastructure bill, and a number of other federal funding areas, the state of Alaska is going to have billions of dollars coming to us for internet, and broadband, and self-service connectivity. This is a great opportunity. 

Some of you may have attended the summit that I held in August. The entire purpose of that summit on this issue is the same as the purpose of this AFN conference, which is unity. All of us—the feds, state, tribes, ANCs, telecoms, the private sector—we have an opportunity right now to coordinate, work together, unify, with the goal of connecting every community, every village with internet and broadband connectivity.

Think about what that could do for opportunities—for telehealth, for education, for small businesses. This is an exciting time. It’s starting to happen. You may have seen, just in the past few weeks, we've had federal broadband and internet announcements, upwards of $350 million for many of our rural communities. I want to thank so many who’ve been working on this, particularly Senator Hoffman and Representative Edgmon, who've done a great job in setting up the state framework. And Nicole Borromeo. Where's Nicole? Right there. How about a round of applause. She's doing an amazing job. We got to keep working together. This is a great opportunity for all of us.

Let me talk about another issue that I know is on everybody's mind, and that is salmon.

I was introduced to what salmon means to Native culture and people through my amazing wife, Julie, who is right there, and her family's fish camp on the Yukon. As a family, we have so many amazing memories and experiences at the Fates’ fish camp.

I'll give you one that's a little embarrassing for me. But it's still important because I've been learning. Many years ago, we were a newly married couple, having babies. I had been working in the Bush administration for President Bush. We had come back home from the White House, and I had just been on a trip with the President. So I was kind of doing, I think in retrospect, with my mother- and father-in-law maybe a little bit too much talking about my job and patting myself on the back.

Those of you who knew my late father-in-law, Budd Fate, I can just tell you very quickly, he was not impressed. As a matter of fact, I'll never forget this. I told him the story. I'm looking for a little approval, you know? He said, “Hey, Dan, that's great. That's a great story. Now, here's the shovel. Remember that outhouse that you dug last year? Well, you screwed it up, and you need to go fix it.” 

The joys of fish camp. Nothing like your father-in-law telling you to go dig the outhouse that you screwed up the year before. It's a true story. 

But, in all seriousness, the other memories that we've had—Julie and I—particularly with our three daughters, and I know so many people have the same memories from the time they were toddlers to the time that they're now young women, learning to head and gut and strip and cut salmon on the banks of the Yukon.

They were doing this as a family. But, as you all know, they were learning about their culture and about sharing, and about family, and about spiritual sustenance. I will admit, I was learning right alongside my kids. 

When the kings are running on the Yukon, it's the most spiritual place in the world. When the fish aren't running, it feels like something is very wrong with the universe, a sickness, a black hole. And we all know the fish have not been running for the past several years on the Yukon, and many of Alaska's other great rivers.

We need answers to why this has happened to our salmon throughout our entire state. And we need the voices of all Alaskans involved on this very important issue. That is why I've introduced legislation with Senator Murkowski called the Alaska Salmon Research Task Force Act. The whole purpose of this is to bring together all of the stakeholders—the best minds in the world, especially our indigenous communities, traditional knowledge, where the harvest of salmon has been occurring for thousands of years—and figure out exactly what is happening, to get the answers we need to then address this very difficult challenge. 

This legislation is moving in the Congress. I'm hopeful that by next year at AFN, I’ll be able to say it's been passed into law and we're getting on this very important issue. 

Another area that is critical to unite on—and I know we talk about it a lot, but I want to highlight it—is public safety, particularly as it relates to the abuse of women and girls, where we still have so much work to do.

I got involved in this issue many years ago when I was your attorney general and led our governor's rural sub-cabinet and was out in a number of communities with other cabinet members in the state government, including Commissioner Bishop who's right here and a great friend of our Alaska Native people.

In one of those meetings early on, I had a meeting with the superintendent of a school in Rural Alaska. He told me a story that still haunts me to this day. He's said his best student, a young girl, had called in that morning and had a big final exam that she was supposed to be taking, and said she couldn't take it because she had been sexually assaulted the night before.

You know, I knew that sexual abuse was a huge problem in our state. But there was something about that particular story that broke my heart and steeled my resolve to do all I can to work on this horrendous problem in Alaska—all of Alaska.

So, together, we unified to start a statewide initiative, you might remember it—the Choose Respect initiative. When I arrived in the Senate, one of the first bills I introduced was modeled on the legal representation aspect of Choose Respect. We called it the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent Act, or the POWER Act. 

The goal of the POWER Act is to create an army of lawyers, free legal services across the country, to represent survivors of sexual assault. The POWER Act also has a focus on the needs of indigenous women in America. 

Why is this important? Studies have shown that when abused victims are represented by an attorney, their ability to break out of the cycle of violence increases dramatically with a lawyer. For example, one study found that 83 percent of victims represented by an attorney were able to attain a protective order compared to just under 30 percent when there's no lawyer involved. The POWER Act was passed into law a few years ago, temporarily, for a five-year period. Because of that, we have reached more than 60,000 lawyers to encourage them to do pro bono work for women across the country. 60,000! 

Just a few weeks ago, the Senate unanimously voted to reauthorize the POWER Act for good, so it will be a permanent part of Alaska's and America's legal framework. It's over in the House now. I'm confident it will pass shortly. So that will be a very important goal of ours. 

We have so much more work to do on this critical issue of sexual assault and domestic violence and in the related and heartbreaking and horrendous issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

But there's light on the horizon here, because these issues are finally starting to get the attention they deserve. Thanks to initiatives like Savannah’s Act, which is led by Senator Murkowski, and Operation Lady Justice, led by former AFN Co-Chair and Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney. Both of them have done such great work on this important issue. We're going to continue to unify on it, but I ask for a round of applause for the great work that they've done on this issue. 

Turning to something that is also important to our state, I know we haven't always been unified on resource development in certain areas. I am a strong supporter of resource development, as I believe many in this community are too, because it brings benefits and jobs and resources and pride and work to our rural communities.

There is a project that's on the cusp of development right now that there's actually strong unity on in Alaska. That is the Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska. It could be transformative to our state: thousands of jobs, millions of [dollars in] revenues for rural communities. So many Alaskans from so many different groups support Willow. I want to thank the North Slope Borough, North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower, and Representative Josiah Patkotak who wrote an amazing article in the Wall Street Journal recently on this, read by millions and millions of their fellow Americans. 

The State of Alaska, the entire congressional delegation and, importantly, AFN, all support this important project. For our state, we have unity on this project. But there are some outside groups who are very unaware of our way of life here, and trying to divide us on this issue and stop this project. I want to make sure that for any federal officials—Department of Interior or others—who are here at AFN today, please let everybody know back in D.C. on this important project: Alaskans, AFN, and so many stakeholders throughout our state are supportive of Willow.

Let me conclude my remarks with a cautionary tale. When the pandemic was raging, Senator Murkowski, Congressman Young and I had the idea of setting aside funds for Native people across America, given how dangerous this pandemic could be, particularly to vulnerable communities in Alaska and throughout the whole country. We were able to get in the CARES Act an $8 billion dollar set-aside to focus on Native communities and Alaska and the Lower 48, working closely with the Trump White House and Assistant Secretary of Interior Tara Sweeney.

At the time, that was the biggest investment in our Native communities in U.S. history. We crafted the language in that bill to make sure that all Alaska Native groups would benefit. Unity. How do I know that was the intent of the law? Because we wrote the law. We knew it. We focused on it. Unity for everybody. It was a big amount of money at a very stressful time. And it was going really well.

Unfortunately, as many of you know, some folks filed a lawsuit on this, led by certain groups in the Lower 48. They wanted to carve out tens of thousands of Alaskan Natives from any benefit to this bill. Tens of thousands of you. It was wrong. We knew it was wrong legally, but it's also wrong morally. Had their lawsuit prevailed, it would have negatively impacted our state in an enormous way. 

So what happened? The theme of this convention happened. Unity happened. We all came together. This was a mighty and really important struggle, even beyond the $8 billion at stake. The federal delegation, AFN, other Native groups, we came together to fight against this. Unfortunately, we had to take it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. But working together, we won that case in the Supreme Court. I want to thank so many people here for that huge victory.

But, as I mentioned, this victory entails a cautionary tale about the need to remain vigilant. The groups that did not prevail and many of their supporters in Congress decided that the next batch of pandemic relief for Native peoples in America would exclude tens of thousands of Alaska Natives. We fought it. Trust me, your delegation fought it. But they prevailed. So the $20 billion American Recovery Act monies to Native peoples across America had a big carve-out to make sure that thousands and thousands of Alaska Natives were not included. 

This is an attempt to divide Alaskans. I think it's even discriminatory. We need to continue to fight against it.

There was a discussion here at AFN yesterday led by two outstanding Alaskan Native leaders, Hallie Bissett, and Kim Reitmeier. We are working closely with them and so many of you on keeping vigilance over this kind of division. We can't have it. The system that we have put together—all of you and the Congress over the last 50 years—is unique. It's different from the Lower 48, the tribal service delivery. The ANC structure is different, but it was implemented by Congress. We believe it's all about unity. We're going to continue to work together with all of you and stay vigilant on those issues.

Despite these challenges, I want to end on a positive note: the spirit of unity that we're celebrating here at AFN is alive and well. I think you all know it. 

I had the great opportunity to see it on display just a few days ago. I was out in Western Alaska earlier this week, in Nome, Golovin, and Unalakleet. I was honored to be accompanied by my good friend, an exceptional Alaska Native and Alaskan leader, Gail Schubert. What we saw in these communities was remarkable. Alaska Native Corporations, tribes, church groups, nonprofits, young Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans, thousands of individual Alaskans—Native and non-Native—coming together, working together very effectively, to help these communities that had been hit by this very powerful typhoon. 

Homes are being built. Roads are being cleared and paved. Volunteers were delivering services. FEMA, and other federal agencies were working well with us. The state was working well. It was remarkable. Everybody working together to help these communities in need.

It was a great display of unity. But, again, it took some work. Once again, trust me, I took orders from all of you. You may have seen about four weeks ago, there was an issue in the federal government where Puerto Rico had been hit by a disaster. And the federal government said, we're going to give Puerto Rico 100 percent relief for the cost paid to those communities. But they weren't going to do it for Western Alaska.  

We said, no way. No way. I won't give you the gory details. But we made sure that Western Alaska got the same 100 percent match that Puerto Rico did. That's only fair. 

So that's the power of unity. And, again, it's so great to be back here with Julie and her cousins, Georgiana. God bless you. Anna-basse. We look forward to seeing you around AFN the next couple of days. Thank you very much.

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