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The Alaska Federation of Natives held its annual meeting in Anchorage this last week (October 20-22). This is a big event and it’s filled with enough stories to fill many a blog. What grabbed my attention this year was the participation of Senator Lisa Murkowski.  Watching the first of two presentations she was to give at this year’s convention, brought to mind two other moments.

First, there was last year’s meeting of the AFN, held in Fairbanks. Senator Murkowski spoke then as well. At that time, she was a write-in candidate for her own office. Her principal opposition, Joe Miller, had secured the Republican nomination for Murkowski’s position. A Tea Party favorite, Miller had been openly critical of Alaska’s tribal corporations. Faced with a near certain Republican victory, Alaska’s Native leadership threw its weight behind Murkowski. Lost in the shuffle, the Democratic nominee, Scott McAdams, struggled to keep in the race.

The Alaska Federation of Natives endorsed Murkowski and she spoke at their convention. Denied the chance to debate Murkowski in a public forum, or to speak on their own, McAdams and Joe Miller made appearances on the floor of the convention. If McAdams received little in the way of attention, Miller must have received a very chilly reception.

A year later, Senator Murkowski took to the podium again, this time at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention center appropriately enough, the very location at which she announced her write-in candidacy. This year, Murkowski took to the floor once during the convention itself, and once again at the closing banquet, both times the substance of her speech was an expression of thanks. If Murkowski’s gratitude was apparent, so was the pride of AFN leadership. They had played a substantial role in getting her back into office, and this year’s AFN proved to be an opportune moment to trumpet that victory.

The second thing on my mind proved to be a very different kind of moment in the politics of indigenous affairs. In early February, 1998, then President of the Navajo Nation, Albert Hale, threatened to shut down the roads passing through Navajo lands. Doing so, he suggested would help to teach non-natives to respect the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation

The immediate response to Hale’s threat was fascinating. Non-Indians wrote all manner of letters to various local newspapers, most of them angry. On the one hand, much of the criticism seemed understandable. Hale hadn’t really put any specific issue on the table, so no-one knew really what he wanted out of the move. (Some of the more cynical among us might have believed it was to draw attention away from an ethics investigation which soon led to Hale’s ouster.) But something more interested proved to be happening in those letters; an awful lot of non-natives were learning the hard way that Indian people’s still held a measure of power in the United States. For all the poverty and corruption one can find in Indian country, for all the problems that tribal leadership seemed unable to resolve, there were at least a few things that they could still do. And one of those things was to make it a lot more difficult to drive through parts of the Southwest.

This is where the other letters from that time come in, the ones from the Navajo people. Many were less than pleased with Hale’s gambit themselves. I was living in Fort Defiance at the time and I recall quite well the shaking heads and office gossip. This was not the way to do things, at least according to the folks I knew.  What use is sovereignty if it only means shutting down roads, some seemed to say? It would be far better, so the argument went, to build a road, or at least to repair the roads already there.  A gesture intended to show the power and force of the Navajo Nation, Hale’s threats seemed only to underscore the relative weakness of Navajo leadership.

I couldn’t help but think about Albert Hale’s road-gambit as I saw Lisa Murkowski speak at AFN.  The basis for the comparison sis simple enough. To me, Hale’s move had always been something of a low-moment in Native American politics, but now I was watching a high one, at least as measured by raw political power. This was Native Alaskans doing what Hale had failed to do back in 1998, they were actually building something.  Now as it happens, it wasn’t a road that Alaskan natives built here, it was a political base capable of affecting a major election, but that election itself is precisely what it will take to get the roads built in Alaska’s Native communities.  Faced with a threat from an outside source, The Alaska Federation of Natives did what it took to ensure that their own interests were protected.

Such victories are hardly new for the Alaska Federation of Natives, but perhaps that is my point. In a world where native politics is so often relegated to symbolic victories, this organization stands out as one of the major players in Alaskan politics. The theme for this meeting of the AFN was “Strength in Unity,” and what better proof could its leaders offer than the re-election of Murkowski to the U.S. Senate. Here at least, Native Leaders had demonstrated with perfect clarity that they were a force to be reckoned with.