A word from the president: AFN evolving to unify, better serve

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

Two years ago, as a delegate to the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Convention, I was pleased to vote to approve resolution 09-05, a resolution directing the AFN board to undertake a process to reorganize AFN. It seemed then that a strong call from delegates on the convention floor was needed to establish momentum behind what was proving to be a difficult but important task.

I feel strongly that Alaska Native people still have a stake in whether AFN is a vibrant, innovative organization representing their collective, yet broad interests. On Dec.18, we will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). More than forty years ago, Alaska Native leaders, some quite young at the time, were determined that Alaska Native people should have a say in the structure of the Act itself. They knew that they needed to become more politically active if they were to remain at the negotiating table. They knew that a statewide organization was needed to take input from across the state and to bridge cultural and regional differences.

Information, in the time before cell phones and instant communication, needed to flow through an entity such as AFN. Thus, AFN, the first Alaska Native institution organized on a statewide basis, was created for the purpose of participating in negotiating the provisions of ANCSA. Alaska Native representation would come through seats on the AFN Board and from participation in the annual convention.

AFN remains today the only organization that has legitimate authority to call all Alaska Natives into a statewide convention. AFN is widely recognized for this role by Alaska Native community members and others throughout the state and nation. But AFN has challenges presented by the sometimes competing special interests of the constituencies it serves.

Resolution 09-05 resulted from calls to widen representation on the AFN Board while streamlining its governance and decision-making so that AFN can reclaim its effectiveness and relevance in addressing the many issues facing Alaska Native people and institutions. It has proven to be difficult to reconcile the seemingly contradictory goals of wider representation and timely, stream-lined decision-making. There have been several false starts on the effort.

Resolution 09-05 went further than simply calling for reorganization: it formed a special committee, ultimately titled the Leadership Committee, to develop reorganization proposals for the AFN Board’s consideration. The Leadership Committee included one representative from each of the twelve regions. The CIRI region representatives selected Gloria O’Neill, president and CEO of Cook Inlet Tribal Council, to serve on the Leadership Committee.

The Leadership Committee studied AFN, its mission and its purpose and brought forward several options. The committee report at the 2011 AFN Convention told delegates that the vote on reorganization is scheduled for a special AFN Board meeting in early December.

As I attended the AFN convention this year, I carried with me a sense of history of the role the organization played in the passage of ANCSA and therefore, the creation of CIRI and all other Alaska Native corporations. I recognize the important work that AFN still has before it. And I salute its powerful 2011 theme of Strength in Unity, a yet-to-be accomplished goal. Even within our CIRI region, where the path toward unity and understanding between our region’s Alaska Native corporations and the region’s tribal interests seems at times to be a slow dance of two steps forward and one step back, I remain hopeful.

On a statewide basis, AFN can play a role as we strive to reach understanding and accommodation of each other’s missions, particularly the legitimate roles of both the tribal interests and the ANCSA corporations. I extend my thanks to the Leadership Committee for caring enough about AFN to step forward and do the hard work leading up to the 2011 Convention. AFN, for its past history and its future accomplishments, deserves this thoughtful, purposeful attention.