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Showing posts from December, 2014

Native Alaska Takes a Seat at the Table—and Plans to Stay There

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version of this article first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in November 2014.
“I saw so many Native people on the new governor’s transition team,” said Kim Reitmeier, president of ANCSA Regional Association, an organization for Native-corporation CEOs. “After this past election, our people are walking on air. There’s enthusiasm, and there’s optimism. There’s also a recognition that Alaska faces many challenges.”
But this time, Native expertise is available, Reitmeier said. Ahead of taking office December 1, governor-elect Bill Walker and his Tlingit lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott, sought diverse advisors and opinions. Co-directing the Walker–Mallot transition team was Bethel Native Corporation’s Yup’ik CEO Ana Hoffman, also co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), the state’s largest Native organization.
More prominent Native transition-team members included First Alaskans Institute president Elizabeth Medicine Crow, who is Haida and Tlingit; Universit…

South Dakota Native Election Victories—And What They Say About 2016

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A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in November 2014. 
South Dakota’s Native vote generated a lot of media attention in the run-up to Election 2014. Pundits wondered, would tribal voters there save the Senate for the Democrats…or not? In the end, a string of little-noted Native victories in local races and ballot questions there may turn out to be even more important—now and in 2016. State legislator Kevin Killer, of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, ticked off the successes: On November 4, Jim Bradford, of Pine Ridge, was re-elected to the state Senate, where he will be joined by Troy Heinert, from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, who had been in the House. (Heinert is shown right at his day job as a rodeo pickup rider.) 
Shawn Bordeaux, also of Rosebud, will take over Heinert’s House seat. Meanwhile Rex Conroy, of Pine Ridge, earned the sheriff’s badge for newly renamed Oglala Lakota County with more than 80 percent of the vote; he beat the sheriff

Welcome, Oglala Lakota County!

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A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in November 2014.
On November 4, residents of Shannon County, South Dakota, voted by a four-to-one margin to drop “Shannon” from the name of the non-tribal jurisdiction that overlaps much of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Henceforth, it will be Oglala Lakota County, named for the tribal nation that lives there.
“The voters made their voices heard,” said South Dakota state legislator Kevin Killer, who is Oglala Lakota (shown right).
In recent years, reports The Rapid City Journal, names of several South Dakota sites have been changed to remove offensive references. When Killer thought of Shannon County following this route, he discussed the idea with his campaign manager Kimberly Killer, county commissioner Anna Takes the Shield, and Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation organizer Andrew Iron Shell. They felt they needed to know who the county’s namesake, Peter C. Shannon, really was. “No one knew mu…

"Someone Out There Is Listening"

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A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in November 2014.


“Go Togiak! It’s just noon, and 120 out of 500 have voted!” Rose Wassillie’s voice came crackling over VHF radio in Togiak, a Native village in southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. “Let’s make those numbers climb!” Overlooking the Pacific Ocean and backed by a vast expanse of tundra and rugged snowy mountains, Togiak uses VHF open-mic transmissions to connect both internally and with the rest of the world.
After months of intense media speculation about the Alaska Native vote and its potential to swing the state’s important races—for governor, U.S. Senator and the state’s lone Congressional seat—the Native turnout did not disappoint. Data from the surrounding Bristol Bay region filtered in over the course of the day. By the time the election was winding down, 60 percent of Togiak’s 500 registered voters had cast ballots, while turnout was 100 percent or close to it in some smaller villag…

Election Day Dawns in an Alaska Native Village

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A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in November 2014.


This morning, as the sun rises behind dramatic snowy mountains and glistens on the water of Togiak Bay, voters from an Alaska Native town of about 1,000 are heading for the polls. Life-changing ballot measures, increased voting access, improved language assistance and a sense that Native voters have newfound clout are converging to make Election 2014 a big one in Togiak, Alaska. Head election judge Desiree Green is shown left using VHF open-mic radio to encourage voters to come to the polls on Election Day.
City council member Andrew Franklin said the community was particularly interested in a ballot measure that would help keep a large mining operation out of nearby Bristol Bay, the world’s largest sockeye-salmon fishery. The fishery is a huge local employer and the linchpin of the area’s hunting and gathering lifeways. “We’re really afraid of losing the salmon, along with moose, caribou and …

Making Voting Friendly, the Alaska Native Way

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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…

Getting Out the Alaska Native Vote—One Voter at a Time

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This story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in late October 2014. 
“There’s an excitement about voting this year. As people I know early vote, they text and email me to let me know,” said Cindy Allred, of Get Out the Native Vote and ANCSA Regional Association, where she’s Deputy Director. Selfies and photos snapped of voters, with likes and comments from friends and neighbors, adorn the Bristol Bay Votes Facebook group, set up by Grace Mulipola, legal assistant at Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC). Mulipola is coordinating early voting for her region (shown right from the air).
A concerted effort by Alaska Native organizations this past summer means breakthroughs in voting access for people in the small, remote villages of rural Alaska. For the 2014 general election, some 200 villages now have access to the state’s two-week early-voting period, up from just 30 as recently as this year’s primary. Casting a ballot ahead of Election Day was formerly only available …

On a Roll: Alaska Native Voters Win Another Civil-Rights Battle

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A version of this story appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in September 2014. When the judge finalized the order, an update appeared in November 1015.


A federal court in Anchorage has sided with Alaska Natives who demanded that Alaska provide language assistance to non-English-proficient voters. According to United States District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, who presided over the trial for the landmark voting-rights lawsuit Toyukak v. Treadwell, Alaska violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by failing to adequately translate election materials for Gwich’in and Yup’ik speakers. In a September 3 hearing, Judge Gleason criticized the state for relying on poorly paid, poorly informed “outreach workers” to provide interpretation on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
Lead plaintiff was Mike Toyukak, shown above and below in his home village, Manokotak, Alaska. Other plaintiffs were Frank Lagusak, Sr., representative of the Traditional Village of Togiak, also a plaintiff in the case,…

“You Say You Want a Revolution…” Alaska Natives Transform Voting Access

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A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in July 2014.
A perfectly timed combination of negotiation and grassroots organizing has allowed Native villages across Alaska to become absentee in-person voting locations for federal elections for the first time. That’s a sea change from just a few weeks ago, when voters in only about 30 Native villages had a way to cast a ballot ahead of Election Day, said Nicole Borromeo, general counsel of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). Meanwhile, Alaska’s urban voters had 15 days to do so. The locations will be in place for the August primary, according to Borromeo, who is Athabascan from McGrath Native Village.
This transformation in voting access follows years of fruitless requests to the state for the election services by three groups: AFN, an organization of regional and village corporations, tribes and other entities; ANCSA Regional Association, a group of Native-corporation CEOs; and Get Out The Native Vote…