Hundreds of Native American leaders from around the country are in Anchorage for a three-day meeting of the National Congress of American Indians.
NCAI Executive Director Jackie Pata said the mid-year meeting rotates to different areas of the country every year, but the purpose is the same – share concerns and set policy to be forwarded to Washington D.C.
“This particular meeting, because it’s our mid-year meeting, is the one we call our work meeting,” said Pata. “We roll-up our sleeves and tribal leaders really debate policies and make recommendations and get in shape for our message to Congress and the Administration.”
Tribes share many of the same concerns, said Pata, from child welfare to climate change. But some of the issues the congress will consider are distinctly Alaskan.
“I think the federal-state recognition of tribes in Alaska is a big issue,“ said Tlingit Haida Central Council President Marvin Adams. “The lower 48 states all have compacts with their tribes and Alaska doesn’t have any, and it’s a real concern.”
Participants aren’t just talking amongst themselves. Tony West is a high ranking official from the U.S. Department of Justice. West told the crowd that Attorney General Eric Holder is committed to making it easier for rural Natives to vote.
“There tend to be challenges posed by distance from the polling place or the fact that they cannot get election materials in their native languages,” said West. “So those dual challenges are things that we can do something about.”
West said he believes states, including Alaska, have an obligation to provide native speakers with election materials in their own language. West said the Justice Department will be starting a dialogue with tribal leaders about how to improve voting access for both American Indians and Alaska Natives.