2013 AFN Convention Key Note Address Nelson N. Angapak, Sr.

Nelson Angapak 01
Photo by Loren Holmes, Alaska Dispatch

Nelson N. Angapak, Sr.  2013 AFN Convention Key Note Address

October 24, 2013

First of all, I want to thank God, my grandparents, my parents, my wife Natalie Angapak and my family for the support that I’ve received from them in my endeavors in life.  I thank Calista Corporation and the Alaska Federation of Natives for the employment opportunities they provided for me during the 40 years of my professional life as an advocate for Alaska Natives.  And I thank the Alaska Native Community, including those who’ve told us that they are praying for us, for the support that you’ve demonstrated and extended toward AFN and also me when I traveled to and fro in Alaska.  Thank you all.

Never in my wildest dreams have I ever pictured myself being a keynote speaker for any AFN Conventions.  I thank the AFN Board of Directors, President Julie Kitka; and the staff of AFN for giving me the honor and privilege of being your keynote speaker this morning.  I will cherish this moment for the rest of my life.  This is very humbling for me and my family.

Ceumek kankernaurtua umyuangcautekillruaka Yugturlainaq kalariskuma canritnayukluku; taugam yulgutekngamteke makut elaput mane wetalret, kencikluke, takaqlukillu, alungutkun tamaklamta tarengitukimtegun pecequa.  Illmekutunarqelleneuq whaten pelliq.  Quyanaqfa tarenglua!

I just held a brief executive session with the Yupik speaking delegates at this 2013 AFN Convention. Yupik, perhaps, is one of the easiest languages to learn—some of us went to school to learn to speak English.


Like many youth, young men and women of my generation, I spent some time at government boarding schools.  When I was 14 years old in 1958, I was sent to Wrangell Institute; and at that time, I hardly knew English.  There is one incident, had it not been for the wisdom of my grandfather, that I was going to use as excuse for quitting school when I was 16 years old associated with Wrangell Institute.  I have a scar on my right hand that I received for speaking Yupik in class, which was prohibited; and this angered our teacher.  He made me stand in front of class, had me hold out my right hand, then he struck my hand with the brass edge of a 12 inch and pierced my skin. The cut healed; however, the emotional scar remained with me for a while, 46 years to be exact.  My emotional healing began in 2004 at a Togiak, Alaska Conference on healing; I attempted to share this story there; however, I was unable to talk about it then as I became angry, emotional, and even wept publically.  I thank God and the people who sponsored that conference when they did.

Sometime after we returned home from Wrangell Institute, I remember telling my grandfather emphatically that I would quit school when I was 16 as I thought that this was the easiest way, though perhaps not the best way, to handle this event.  He was silent for a moment, which meant that he was thinking. He finally responded by saying: “My dear grandson, Tutgararluma, I was hoping that you were going to learn enough of this tongue so that someday you can tell these people, the white eyes, that we are people, people just like them with feelings.”  If he had answered in any other way, I would not be standing before you today addressing you with this keynote.

This moment is one of the key turning points of my life.  His answer demonstrated the wisdom of our Alaska Native Elders; wisdom that has existed among our people from the beginning of time and wisdom that still remains with us today.  From time to time, to this day, when I think of my grandfather’s response, I marvel at his wisdom.  Sitting among us are our Elders from across the state of Alaska, their wisdom, in part, is the reason we are here today.  More than ever, we need to find ways and means of incorporating the wisdom of our Elders as we move forward in addressing the issues that impact our ways of life; among them but not limited to; subsistence, and in continuing cultural revitalization within the Alaska Native Community.  Let’s give our Elders the strongest gratitude that we can extend to them.

While some of us experienced similar types of undue treatment such as mine, let us remember that our positive experiences at boarding schools overshadow these; and to this day, I am thankful for them—among them: we were educated by them, lifelong friendship created among those of us who attended the boarding schools together at the same time; friendship that bonded us and created camaraderie for us as Alaska Native peoples; and the boarding schools also educated some of our Alaska Native leaders who led our people to where we are today among other things.


I now turn to our youth, young men and women attending this convention. There is a silver lining associated with this scar; it taught me to understand that by listening to my grandfather and grandmother, I learned to listen to the wisdom of our Elders.  The very thing that I was going to use as an excuse for quitting school became a source of my motivation to remain in school, so that someday I could tell these people that we are people just like them with feelings; and intelligent enough to go as far as I could go in school.  In other words, please learn to use your difficult experiences and the responses of our Elders to motivate yourself to succeed in life.


Our Elders told us that one of the keys of succeeding in the future was education; and based on our experiences, we have found that to be so very true.  When many of us from my generation earned a high school diploma; that opened doors of greater opportunities and meaningful jobs for us than those who did not graduate from high school.  Today, I would say earning a bachelor’s degree from a four year college or graduating from technical training will be one of the keys to opening many more doors for good jobs and job opportunities for you.


Regardless of what choices you make in life, strive to do the best that you can be.  If you choose to remain in the village after high school, strive to become the best at providing for and taking care of your families; and if you decide to go to school beyond high school, strive to finish what you started; whether it is college or technical school.  When you look back, eventually, you will realize that it took only 4 years of your life to graduate from college.


For our part, I hope those of us who are no longer at the prime of our youth—a fancy way of saying we are getting old—will support our youth, young women and men, by doing all we can to give them the resources, the opportunities and the tools they need to succeed.  Let us share the lessons we have learned and our hopes for their futures.  Let us fight, together, to connect our villages and cities, and to give our youth access to the technologies that will allow them to keep our villages alive while learning and connecting virtually with the rest of the world.




When I came back to Alaska, June of 1972, after I was honorably discharged from active duty in the U. S. Army, one of the things I found out was that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of December 18, 1971 had been enacted into law.

ANCSA is, by far, one of the most, if not the most complex, Indian legislation that was ever passed by Congress.  Some of the complexities of ANCSA included formation of ANCSA corporations, and some of us did not know what a corporation was.  Other issues we were faced with included enrollment of Alaska Natives born on or before December 18, 1971 as our shareholders—and by the way, we asked “what is a shareholder?” land selection deadlines, etc. For all practical purposes, we had no existing models we could emulate.  We were walking on a new trial without realizing it.  We worked together across regional boundaries as united people in order for us to successfully implement ANCSA in a manner that we felt was in the best interests of our people. In the end, we innovated, assisted one another where we could, and we prevailed and succeeded; and I think we did pretty good!


Our village and regional corporations have gone a long ways since those early days of ANCSA. Today, the ANCSA corporations play a major role in the economy of Alaska; they collectively provide employment opportunities for both Alaska Natives and non-Natives.  To the people who were involved with the early days of ANCSA’s implementation, including people like Willie Hensley, thank you for paving the road for the present corps of Alaska Native leaders.


Today, we live in one of the most challenging times in the history of our nation.  Earlier this month, the federal government of our nation shut down its operations for the second time in the last seventeen years. Although the government is now back to running, the impacts of the shut down on Alaska Natives through the programs operated by our health care facilities, our non-profit organizations as well as some of our ANCSA corporations will linger on.  These organizations are facing federal funding reductions as a result of sequestration and those reductions are causing real pain for our people.

Sequestration is a process that automatically cuts the federal budget across most departments and agencies.  Congress included the threat of sequestration in the Budget Control Act of 2011, ironically, as a way to encourage compromise on deficit reduction efforts.[1]   As a result of sequestration, Alaska Native leadership has found themselves addressing the budgetary impacts of this on programs that impact the Alaska Natives—from headstart to healthcare.

Some of the most difficult and painful decisions our organizations make from time to time is the reduction of or even elimination of programs that benefit Alaska Natives due to financial difficulties. These decisions may include reductions of personnel as a last resort.  I am confident that our Alaska Native leaders involved with these matters will decide in a manner that is in the best interests of our people as well as their organizations.  If there is ever a time to stand united behind our leadership, now is the time; and if there is ever a time to speak with a united voice to share our stories and our needs, to make sure that our representatives in DC and Juneau understand the real human impact of these cuts, now is the time.

To guard against the devastating impacts of future sequestration cuts, AFN and the Alaska Native Community should work now with our allies at the National Congress of American Indians and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, to ask Alaska’s Congressional Delegation, their congressional delegations and our Congressional allies to protect our peoples with legislation that would exempt the Alaska Native/American Indian and Native Hawaiian programs from sequestration.  Such legislative fix would be entirely consistent with the federal government’s trust responsibility to our Alaska Native peoples.




  • Subsistence has the potential of being understood differently by Yup’ik and non-Yup’ik speaking people.  There is no Yup’ik word for subsistence; the closest word we have for subsistence in Yup’ik is yungnaqsaraq; literally, “striving or trying to live.”  The words hunting and fishing also complicate the subject in the Yupik Society; our general term for fish is nega literally, food.  To fish is to neqsuk—literally “seeking food.”  Neqsurtuq literally means he/she is seeking food.  I cannot speak for other cultural groups however I suspect that they may not have a word for subsistence as well.

We have lawyers and legal experts who have been working with AFN and the Alaska Native Community regarding subsistence hunting and fishing; we’ve won some legal battles in the courts of law over the years; we’ll leave that battle in their hands.

I think we ought to look at subsistence from our Alaska Native eyes; subsistence hunting and fishing is what keeps our people alive physically, mentally, and spiritually; in other words, subsistence hunting and fishing is life itself.  To this end, let us remember the late Katie John who “walked up before lawyers, and judges and TV cameras and people” and according to Yvonne Echohawk, a pastor and an adopted daughter of Katie John, she stated that Katie John said: ‘give me my land, give me my water, give me my fish, I want justice for my people.’ And she didn’t rest until she had it. (She was) a woman of God, called of God, knew what she had to do and did it. She knew she had a destiny. She knew she had a purpose. And she did it and she did it well.”[2]  Katie John summarized one of the ways that Alaska Natives view subsistence very eloquently.

Recently, on September 19, 2013, Dr. Rosita Worl, Chair, AFN Subsistence Committee testified before the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, she stated, in part, that:

“We are here to ask Congress to fulfill the Federal Government’s trust responsibility to protect the Alaska Native subsistence culture and economy. The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources should work with the Alaska Native community to design federal legislation that will protect Alaska Native subsistence rights. By embracing co-management with Alaska Natives, the Federal Government could administer a much more responsive and cost-efficient management program. It would reduce the litigation that has plagued the implementation of Title VIII of ANILCA since its passage more than 30 years ago”. [3]

This was the first oversight hearing on subsistence in the United States Congress since the passage of ANILCA.  Let us all, with a united voice, thank the AFN Team who testified in front of Congress regarding the protection of our subsistence way of life.

There have been some major assaults on our subsistence ways of life over the years; however, it seems that the last two years in particular, the crackdowns on the Alaska Natives and non-Natives living along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers have increased more than any other years.  The men and women who were fishing for Chinook salmon for food in these rivers were criminalized for pursuing them to feed their families.  The people living along the Kuskokwim River were the most visible for their efforts of catching enough kings to feed their families during the upcoming winter months.  Their nets, in some instances, the only net these people had, were taken from them.  When is it wrong to fish and feed our families; or, to put this in another way, is it wrong to fish to feed our families? We say, NO, it is not. Let us say no with a united voice, the only way our people are truly heard.



The Board of Directors of the Alaska Federation of Natives, in accordance to AFN Convention Resolution 09-05, officially approved inclusion of the 231 federally recognized tribes as an integral part of AFN as an organization earlier this year.  In my mind, and in my heart, AFN has always recognized the federally recognized tribes in Alaska. We are peoples united.


As we all know, the Alaska Native Community, AFN, the federally recognized tribes as well as their allies, have been looking for ways and means of protecting our subsistence ways of life since the passage of ANCSA.  While we talk about approaching this issue with a united front, have we really done that?  If not, it is time that the Alaska Native Community—including ANCSA Corporations, AFN and the federally recognized tribes—build on each other’s strengths on subsistence. These strengths include; but are not limited to:


  1.  The ANCSA corporations; and in particular, the regional corporations have developed expertise in lobbying Congress on issues of their concern during their more than 40 years of existence;
  2. AFN is recognized nationally as an advocate for the rights and the well-being of the Alaska Natives; and finally,
  3. The federally recognized tribes have the government-to-government relationship with the federal government.


We’ve independently asked the federal government and Congress to protect our subsistence hunting and fishing rights and our requests have been well received.  Perhaps, it is time that we merge the expertise and knowledge and the strengths we have, and truly present a united front in reality, in truth and in spirit, to lobby Congress for the protection of our subsistence hunting and fishing rights.


Finally, there is one statement that I’ve always wanted to make on Title VIII of ANILCA.  I want our delegates, guests and other people that based on our lobbying of Congress from mid 1970s to December 1980; there was never a compromise on our part regarding subsistence; we lobbied for Alaska Native preference on what are now federal conservation systems in Alaska.  (Repeat)


  • Unity is a word for togetherness or oneness of mind.  When a group of people act as one and are on the same page, they display unity.  For example, the Holy Bible tells us in Psalms 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity”.

We all know that during the 2010 Republican primary, Senator Lisa Murkowski lost her party’s nomination for U.S. Senate. This created a dilemma within the Alaska Native Community.  We were concerned about the possibility of losing support in Congress on issues that impact our people.  We concluded that supporting Senator Lisa Murkowski as a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate was our best option.  The Alaska Native Community and her supporters convinced Lisa to run as a write-in candidate to retain her seat in the U.S. Senate.  Therefore, in the 2010 general election, a “super PAC” called Alaskans Standing Together was created, managed, and supported by Alaska’s regional Native corporations[4], village corporations, and some major Alaska businesses with the sole purpose of supporting the write-in candidacy of Lisa Murkowski. The power of Alaskans Standing Together became clear after the write-in votes were tallied, resulting in the reelection of Senator Lisa Murkowski to the United States Senate as a write-in candidate; the first time that this has ever happened in the history of the State of Alaska and only the third person ever to win a United States Senate election through write in vote process.[5]  Most importantly, what we accomplished with Alaskans Standing Together demonstrated that when the Alaska Natives, the ANCSA Corporations, and our supporters are united behind an issue, we have a greater chance of achieving our goals. This is the kind of unity with which Alaska Natives must approach the major issues of our era.



Although there has been litigation on the implementation of Title VIII of ANILCA since its passage about 30 years ago, an unexpected benefit came out of this act through the ‘customary and traditional uses;’ and that is the revitalization of our Alaska Native dances, languages, and cultural and spiritual traditions.


  • Dr. Paul John, the Traditional Chief of the Association Village Council Presidents, (April 1997:52) described how dancing returned to Nelson Island: ‘In our village, dancing had stopped. One time Tununak invited Nightmute, and I went along. At that time they no longer danced but gave gifts to their guests.  After the people of Tununak had fed their guests, they brought in goods and distributed them.  Then they invited their guests to their school.  When we came in, because their school had a movie projector, they showed us a movie, and that was the first time that I ever saw a movie.   When we arrived home, our leaders met and they were very dejected because they could not repay the fact that they had been shown a movie.   Though they wanted to repay them, they could see no way to do so.  Then their leader said, “Let us resort to our own Yup’ik way and invite them in turn, even though we may have only one song to repay them for their movie.  His fellow residents immediately agreed.  So the Tununak people were invited and when they arrived, those who participated in previous dances danced for them.”[6]


To thank the people of the Municipality of Anchorage and the Railbelt for their overwhelmingly support of amending the Alaska State Constitution for rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing, AFN decided to hold a Quyana night, sometime in early 1980s, similar to the exchange of dancing shown between Tununak and Nightmute.  We asked Alaska Native communities in our state for dance groups who could perform at this event.  The number of dance groups who responded to perform at this event was less than what we needed for a two hour spot so we asked some of the groups to perform more than once, if possible.


Following the first night there were some major requests by the people of Anchorage and the State of Alaska that we must have an encore performance next year, and we did. The number of dance groups who responded to perform for the second Quyana Night was enough and sufficient to fill a two hour session.


Fast forward to 2013: Today AFN has the luxury of selecting dance groups who might perform at the Quyana Nights as well as during the AFN convention. Many of these dance groups have credited Quyana Nights as one of the primary reasons for their dancing again publicly. I am sharing this story to let you know that during my short lifetime, I have seen the revitalization of one of the most important aspects of our cultures; the revitalization of Alaska Native dances and we have seen how that revitalization has impacted our lives physically, emotionally and spiritually.


In closing, let us remember one moment in the life of the late Jonathan Solomon. In 1994, a resolution supporting exploration of ANWR was introduced on the floor of the convention.  After a major debate on the floor, the resolution barely passed on a roll call vote. Right after the consideration of that resolution, the Chairman allowed the delegates to state their final remarks on the floor regarding this issue.  Finally, the Honorable Jonathan Solomon stood up and asked to be recognized. Chief Solomon stated something to this effect, very softly, but very strongly:


“I stand before you humbly to thank the delegates of the 1994 convention for giving us an opportunity to address an issue that will have a major impact upon our lives regardless of where we stand on this issue at this time.  Regardless of what happened on the floor of the convention on this issue today; I am asking the delegates of this convention, in humbleness and in meekness, that when we walk out of this building, we may walk out bruised, black-eyed and beat-up; I am asking and urging you from the bottom of my heart, that we must walk out as one united Alaska Native Community.”


May the 2013 AFN Convention be the best ever of the AFN Conventions. Let us leave this Convention as one united Alaska Native Community.


Thank you


Click here to download a pdf of Nelson Angapak Key Note address

[3] Excerpt from Dr. Rosita Worl’s Testimony

[6] Fienup-Riordan, A., (2007). Yuungnaqpiallerput: The Way We Genuinely Live. Anchorage, AK: Anchorage Museum Association)

AFN would like to thank Alaska Dispatch and Loren Holmes for the use of their pictures of Nelson during the 2013 Annual AFN Convention