Nunavuut Constitutional Convention

by Harold Napoleon

This open letter regarding the Constitutional Convention: August, 1 – 3, 2017, Bethel, Alaska was addressed to the Yupik & Athabaskan Tribal Councils: 56 villages of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, dated July 12th, 2017.

The Yupik and Athabaskan Tribes of the YK Delta are respectfully invited to participate in the constitutional convention on August 1 – 3, 2017 to draft a treaty unifying the area’s 56 tribes and creating a government to represent them. The name “Nunavuut” is being used temporarily to refer to this government – the confederated tribes of the YK Delta.

The call for the convention comes from the tribes that attended the April 4, 2017 intertribal conference in Bethel called to address issues of immediate concern to our villages, issues that no one was addressing on a regional basis although the effects would impact all of our villages.

Life in our villages have been negatively affected by liquor sales in Bethel. Over 20 of our villages have no public safety or law enforcement. The region is assailed by poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and most tragically: child neglect, abuse and suicide. Still, no organized response from us, the tribes; no plans to arrest the suffering, to begin the process of healing and recovery.

Donlin Gold, if it ever goes into production, will be one of the largest placer gold mines in the world, a gold mine in a third world country without a government in place to monitor and regulate its operations (qaunqestaunani) and to safeguard the health and well being of the life-giving Kuskokwim and the villages around it.

It was always the intent to have the tribes participate in the development of Donlin Creek. The subsurface is owned by Calista, by the Native people of this region, and should not be developed without the participation of the tribes as the mine and its tailings are going to have a lasting impact on the life of the Yupik and Athabaskan tribes of the whole delta from now till the end of time.

Senator Lyman Hoffman introduced legislation this year to have the State create a borough blanketing the Calista region to tax Donlin Creek and “to lower energy costs.”

The tribes encompassed by the proposed borough were not consulted, nor have they discussed the matter together, although a state mandated borough would pre-empt their right to self-governance and self determination as provided for by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Indian Self Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, and various federal Indian laws.

Phillip Peter of Akiachak says that we have been talking about creating a government to protect our Way of Life and to advance our causes for forty years, and now that one is needed – it isn’t there. He said that we had to call the other tribes together and seriously discuss creating the government that our elders called for in 1976.

The decision to govern ourselves through a non profit corporation, AVCP Inc., was always a temporary solution. Our late elders did not trust corporations, they did not want to be governed by one. They did not trust boroughs either – they voted one down after a study conducted in 1981.

For Eddie Hoffman’s generation, uniting the villages politically was accepted as the only way for our villages to remain independent (sovereign); the only way to protect our ancestral lands, our subsistence way of Life, our cultures and our languages.

They had realized what Phillip Peter sees now: that what one village couldn’t accomplish 56 could; what one village couldn’t stop, 56 could. They saw that it was only through unity and united action that we would be able to improve, protect, and advance our Yuuyaraq.

Two years ago, 33 tribes voted in a Calista-sponsored meeting to create a regional tribal government. Those 33 tribes need to attend the August 1 – 3 convention and finish the job. The other 23 should also attend, especially if they feel that creating a “regional tribal government” would be a mistake. They owe it to their fellow tribes to answer their call for help and participate.

The Calista region is as large as the state of Oregon with over 40,000 Yupik and Athabascan members living in 56 villages and elsewhere. It is historically and culturally integrated and naturally bordered by the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and the Bering Sea.

There are two main landowners in the region: the Yupik & Athabaskan tribes, our village and regional corporations and the federal government; there is very little state land. The YK delta and its tribes are a natural First Nation waiting to be born.

There are those of us who still support “AVCP,” but AVCP has always been the 56 villages in convention, acting as a government-in-waiting for the day when a bona fide “regional tribal government” was created to take its place. That day has arrived for two reasons.

First, on October 2016, 30 delegates attending the AVCP convention voted to give up their tribe’s seats on the AVCP board and to have it run by a 12 member board strictly following state law. This action left the tribes without their governing instrument and without a united voice.

Second, a recent federal court ruling determined that AVCP was not, and could not be, a tribal government, and did not possess sovereignty and the powers necessary to act as a sovereign voice for the 56 tribes that incorporated it for that purpose on March 2, 1977.

This letter will serve as notice for the Constitutional Convention, August 1-3, 2017, at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center, Bethel Alaska. It was called by the tribes in attendance at the April 4, 2017 Intertribal conference. Every tribal council owes it to their members to participate, especially if their tribe opposes the idea of joining their sister tribes in creating a regional tribal government.

You will be provided with a draft constitution, the blueprint for which was laid by our late elders when they reorganized AVCP as a non-profit corporation, and more recently by the 33 tribes that worked with the Calista Regional Committee.

Have a safe hunting, fishing and gathering season with your families. Look for “Nunavuut” on Facebook. Look forward to seeing all of you on August 1, 2017. Call if you are one of the AVCP compacted villages in need of travel assistance.

-Harold Napoleon, Native Village of Paimiut