A man who searched for gold in Alaska, worked in trapping and commercial fishing, and is the only licensed mariner in Congress was honored with the Congressional Lifetime Achievement Award at the Reservation Economic Summit this week.
Congressman Don Young, who was re-elected to the 112th Congress in 2010 to serve his 20th term as Alaska’s only representative in Congress, received long and enthusiastic bursts of applause during his speech February 27 at the opening general session of RES 2012, the largest American Indian business conference and trade show in the country, now in its 26th year. The conference at the Mandalay Bay Conference Center in Las Vegas runs through March 1.
“I’m here in the role of congressman for all of Alaska and the congressman for all American Indians,” Young said. “ I say this because being chairman of the American Indian and Alaska Natives [House] subcommittee, we can do some great things together.”
Young was first sworn in as a freshman to the 93rd Congress after winning a special election on March 6, 1973. Today he is the 2nd ranking Republican member and the 6th ranking overall member of the House of Representatives. Young was born on June 9, 1933, in Meridian, California, earned his bachelor’s degree at Yuba Junior College in 1952 and served in the U.S. Army’s 41st Tank Battalion from 1955 to 1957. He moved to Alaska in 1959 where he fell in love with Lu, a Gwitch’in woman, who became his wife of 46 years. Lu Young passed in August, 2009. Young’s home is in Fort Yukon, a remote village of approximately 700 people located seven miles above the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s central interior region.
Young has long been hailed as a supporter of Indian country – and in turn Indian country has supported him. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network last year, Young advocated elevating an Indian affairs position to the Cabinet level of the White House. “The president could even do it by executive order—bring [Larry] Echo Hawk to the table so he can position himself without the threat of being replaced by the Secretary of the Interior. We need an advocate,” Young said in the interview. “I want the people in Indian country who want to determine their own destiny to have the ability to do it, and not be inhibited by other government agencies.”
Young reiterated those sentiments during his acceptance speech at RES. “It’s always interesting to me how you’ve progressed over the years. It’s now time to change the way we do business so that you can be more successful, have a better society within your own nations and achieve your own goals. And the way to do that is to make sure that you do have true self determination, nation to nation,” Young said. “This is what I want to work on.”
He noted with some rancor how difficult it is for indigenous peoples to be successful because there are always people, particularly lawmakers, ready to undermine Native success. When the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed “no one thought it would work and then they tried to make sure it’s not successful, but you’ve been successful,” he said. When the Seneca Nation of Indians developed a successful tobacco sales business, “someone slipped a little bill into the Homeland Security (bill) – what that had to do with tobacco, I don’t know – so now you can’t sell tobacco from the Seneca reservation and 800 people lost their jobs.” Young said The successful 8(a) government contracting program is now under attack, he said.”Every time American Indians and Alaska Natives try to rise to the level you’re capable of someone tries to push your head down. I don’t want that to happen again,” Young said to a thunderous round of applause. He promised to serve the American Indian and Alaska Native communities for the remaining two years of his time in Congress “as your leader and your spokesman for as long as you ask me to do so, because you’re doing the right thing.”
Margo Gray Proctor, a member of the Osage Nation and chairwoman of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, praised Young for his dedication to Indian county. “Out of 535 congressmen, this one is a loyal friend of Indian country. You’ve been here many times and been there to help us and we thank you,” Gray Proctor said.