A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in early November 2014.
Beaming with pleasure, Arline Franklin, far right, addressed an October 31 village council meeting in Manokotak, in southwestern Alaska. Speaking in Yup’ik, Franklin, the local absentee voting official, or AVO, exhorted friends and relatives to early vote. Cheering her on were Rose Wassillie, AVO of nearby Togiak and a village resource specialist for Bristol Bay Native Corporation (center), and Grace Mulipola, of Koliganek, now a BBNC legal assistant in Anchorage (at left).
It had taken 18 hours and several flights to get from Anchorage to the isolated village. We were turned back by a blizzard and diverted because of a slushy runway before our five-seater plane touched down in a forested river valley surrounded by craggy, snow-dusted mountains.
At one point during their presentation to the council meeting, the three early-voting cheerleaders led the approximately 75 people present in a chorus of “Every. Vote. Counts!” Said Wassillie, “We want voting to be a good experience.” In the past, badly translated ballots, referendum language that was more legalese than plain English, uncooperative election workers and more conspired to make voting a difficult, unhappy and even humiliating process for Alaska Native people. For decades, the state was under special Department of Justice scrutiny for the poor education offered to Native people, resulting in depressed election turnout.
Since this past spring, the state’s Native leadership has worked to fix the problems. They’ve set up early voting sites in villages, most for the first time, and appointed lively and caring AVOs like Franklin and Wassillie. They’ve sued the state to improve language assistance for voters who aren’t proficient in English. Lead plaintiff in the suit, Mike Toyukak, is a Manokotak elder.
The trio’s enthusiastic sales pitch worked, and Manokotak villagers lined up to cast early ballots. Elders said they were grateful for the women’s encouragement.
Franklin explained that early voting is critical in a subsistence community like Manokotak, because hunters and gatherers can’t necessarily drop everything to go to the polls on Election Day. She described the demanding yearly round of fishing, berry picking and bird hunting in spring, summer and fall, then seal, moose and walrus hunting as winter sets in. “As we speak, my son is headed for the lake to fish and to see if there are any ducks,” said Franklin. “Our hunters go out several times a week, and the rest of the time we’re processing what they bring in. Our freezers are filled with our Native foods.”
Interest in the 2014 election is high, and anecdotal reports indicate more Alaska Natives than ever have already voted this year, said Mulipola. The hot issue for them is subsistence hunting rights and turning out for candidates who support them, notably Senate candidate Mark Begich. The influential Alaska Federation of Natives recently endorsed him, and he was the first candidate mentioned by any voter. “If we don’t hunt, we starve,” said Franklin.
Dana Bartman, assistant principal of Manokotak’s pre-K–12 school, organized the appearance of the early-voting coordinators at the council meeting. She recalled Alaska Natives turning out to support Lisa Murkowski in her successful write-in Senate campaign. “We proved the power of our vote,” said Bartman (shown left receiving a ballot from Franklin).
People in Manokotak may not be rich by certain fiscal measures, but their life is one of great abundance. Their water is pure, their air is clear, and their land and rivers are teeming with game. They and Natives throughout rural Alaska are determined this world will endure.
Text and photographs by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.