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

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; University of Alaska Kuskokwim Campus director Mary Pete, who is Yup’ik and an Obama appointee to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission; former fish and game deputy commissioner Craig Fleener, Gwich’in Athabaskan; and Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s Yup’ik vice president and general counsel, April Ferguson.

“The new administration reached out to rural Alaska,” said AFN’s Athabaskan general counsel, Nicole Borromeo, another transition-team participant. “Native people feel included. This feels different.”

The 2014 election was a watershed moment, agreed Medicine Crow. “Alaska Native people felt empowered.” Encouraged to “rise as one” at AFN’s pre-election annual meeting, voters throughout vast rural stretches of the state came out in force. Most majority-Native villages exceeded their turnout in the 2010 midterm, according to Alaska Democratic Party figures. Some villages nearly doubled their numbers over the most recent presidential year, an impressive achievement, as that’s when turnout is typically highest.

In addition to electing an Alaska Native to statewide office, rural voters contributed to the success of ballot measures they favored, including increasing the minimum wage and preserving the Bristol Bay fisheries—a huge employer and a mainstay of their subsistence lifeways. “Alaska Natives protected their cultural and economic relationship to the environment,” said Alaska Democratic Party communications director Zack Fields. He called Byron Mallot’s election “another historic achievement.”

Access to early voting drove turnout, said Medicine Crow. Though casting a ballot ahead of Election Day has been possible in the state’s urban areas, many Native villages obtained this right for the first time in 2014. A speedy and concerted effort by AFN, ANCSA and Get Out the Native Vote set up rural early-voting offices this past summer; First Alaskans Institute then trained election workers.

“Many of us blocked out our calendars and in a very short time made sure rural Alaska had early-voting access,” said Medicine Crow. “I have to ask, though: Why did private organizations have to do what government should have been doing all along?”

The pre-election victory in the landmark Toyukak v. Treadwell language-assistance lawsuit, applicable immediately to certain Yup’ik speakers, boosted turnout in the Bristol Bay region, where Yup’ik dialects are prevalent. “People were happy,” said lead plaintiff Mike Toyukak. “Both elders and younger people understood the ballot.” 

Toyukak described past elections in which Alaska Natives voted differently than they’d intended, and to their detriment. “I agreed to be a plaintiff because I want our people to know what they’re voting for,” he said. Toyukak is shown above with his wife, Anecia, on November 3 as they headed for a nearby city where she would translate the ballot for Yup’ik speakers on Election Day.

“The record level of Native turnout was astonishing,” said plaintiffs’ attorney James Tucker, of law firm Wilson Elser. “Toyukak v. Treadwell was as much about respecting and empowering Native voters as it was about the law.” Tucker called Election 2014 a “revolution” in Alaska Native enfranchisement, attributable to the efforts of Native individuals and organizations. They did away with a two-tier system that favored non-Native over Native voters, Tucker said.

There’s more to do, said Borromeo. “Going forward, villages must receive enough ballots. Some ran out this time around. Further, rural election workers need training and pay equivalent to that of their urban counterparts.”

Following the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, which eliminated federal oversight of Alaska elections, the Voting Rights Act needs fixes, Reitmeier added. “We also want to see modernization of Alaska Department of Elections systems and procedures. We want to understand how Help America Vote Acts funds are used. And we want to figure out which additional groups need translation and language assistance.”

Even before ballots can be translated, warned Calista Corporation’s Cup’ik communications manager Thom Leonard, Alaska must improve their “readability.” The confusing legalese baffles even English speakers, said Leonard: “Because the state has failed to provide understandable ballots in English, that sets up failure for translation into any language.”

Said Reitmeier: “Native Alaska has momentum, and we’re going build on it. Alaska was third in the nation for voter turnout this year. In 2016, we want to make Alaska first.”

Text and photographs by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.

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

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 who had been stationed at the polls, with the knowledge that this would intimidate voters. More Oglalas were re-elected county commissioners.

Heinert pointed to Native-supported ballot measures that succeeded in South Dakota: “Voters renamed Shannon County as Oglala Lakota County, and an approved gaming measure will place certain games in tribal casinos. The minimum wage increase will help our people make a living wage for the hard work they are doing.”

“All politics is local,” said Killer, who held onto his House seat. “These results show voters what’s possible when they assert their rights as citizens.”

Voter turnout was key, said Heinert: “In my race, the Native vote was the deciding factor. I still count only four Native legislators in South Dakota: Kevin, Shawn, Jim and myself. However, more Native candidates got close. Maybe next time!”

South Dakota’s increased Native turnout ran counter to national and state trends. The Washington Post called Election 2014’s turnout “historically low” nationwide. In South Dakota, just four counties out of 66 saw increased voter participation over the 2010 midterms, according to Greg Lembrich, a New York attorney and legal director of voting-rights group Four Directions.

Tellingly, those were all reservation counties, overlapping Rosebud, Crow Creek, Standing Rock and Pine Ridge, said Lembrich. “Momentum is building toward the South Dakota Native vote being a strong, sustained voting bloc, not just a group that votes sporadically in the right year or race.” Native turnout was up in other states as well, including Arizona, Montana and Alaska.

About 2016, Heinert said, “We need to start now! We must keep our youth involved and get them registered. We must visit with our elders and make sure they have the required paperwork for voting. If we come together as a voting bloc and back candidates who share our views—not just those who ask for our vote—we can win even more races.”

c. Stephanie Woodard. Photograph courtesy Troy Heinert.

Welcome, Oglala Lakota County!

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 much about him. His story wasn’t taught in the schools,” said Killer.

Jesse Short Bull, Native Youth Leadership Alliance communications director, set about finding out. After scouring congressional testimony, obituaries and numerous other historical documents, Short Bull learned that when the county was named after Shannon in 1875, he was a newcomer to the Dakota Territory. President Grant had appointed him chief justice of its supreme court just two years earlier. The Pennsylvania-born judge and sometime legislator had also been a Union Army officer, who “was prominent in raising many troops for the front,” according to an early biographer.

Shannon’s men headed into battle without him, though. He quit before seeing action to work on the Pennsylvania governor’s re-election campaign. In 1864, he helped with President Lincoln’s re-election bid, said Short Bull.

In the early 1880s, another president needed Shannon. Chester Arthur appointed him to the Edmunds Commission, tasked with getting the Sioux bands to relinquish millions of acres of land. To achieve this, commissioners threatened military reprisals and canvassed schools to obtain signatures of Sioux children on the deal, said Short Bull. Tribal members protested, and the effort collapsed. (A later commission succeeded in carving the Great Sioux Nation into separate reservations, including Pine Ridge.)

When Short Bull reported his findings, Shannon didn’t look like much of a hero to Killer. “Why would we name anything in South Dakota after him?” Killer asked.

Going forward, Shannon’s name will disappear from maps, websites, letterheads and Killer’s nameplate in the state legislature, replaced by “Oglala Lakota.” Said Killer, “The people are back in the equation. This is a profound change, with repercussions every time someone sees the new name.”

c. Stephanie Woodard. Photo courtesy Kevin Killer.

"Someone Out There Is Listening"

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 villages, said Grace Mulipola, of Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

Since Togiak’s polls opened at 7 AM, a steady stream of voters had filed into the election office. Most were speakers of Yup’ik—the language most commonly heard around town—and many wanted either the newly available Yup’ik ballot or an interpreter to go into the voting booth with them, as state law allows.

The translated ballot, and an interpreter if desired, was a big driver of turnout, said tribal administrator Clara Martin, shown below at left at the village post-election potluck. “In the past, I never felt my vote counted. It seemed that people who didn’t know anything about our way of life were making decisions for us. Now, the new Yup’ik ballot tells us our vote means something. Someone out there is listening to us.” Election involvement will continue to increase, Martin said. “We can look forward to even greater turnout in years to come.”

The election in Alaska has been hard fought, and voters around the state have said the barrage of political advertising that went with has worn them out. “I’m glad it’s over!” said Traditional Council of Togiak president Jimmy Coopchiak, as tribal members gathered in the evening to celebrate their participation in the election.

However, they may not get the election’s results for awhile, said Coopchiak. Alaska doesn’t count absentee ballots—likely to be a large proportion of votes cast this year—until a week after the polls close, he explained. And the state has a history of close elections. In 2008, 15 days elapsed before Republican Senator Ted Stevens conceded his one-percentage-point loss to Democratic challenger Mark Begich. In 2006, a tied election meant the state representative from the southwestern region was chosen via a coin toss.

Still, today has been a satisfying one for the people of Togiak. The meal they put together included stewed seal, herring roe on kelp, baked and dried salmon, agutak (a chilled mixed-berry dessert) and other Native dishes, made of ingredients hunted and gathered from the surrounding land and water.

When this article was published, the “yes” votes on a much desired ballot measure to protect the Bristol Bay fishery, which is the source of many of these traditional foods, had a commanding lead of 66 percent, as compared to 34 percent against. On the other hand, the local favorite Senatorial candidate, Mark Begich, was trailing. However, as Begich said to his supporters at 10 pm, “Rural Alaska has not yet been counted! Those are our people.”

Said Martin: “We live in very exciting times.”

Text and photographs by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.

Election Day Dawns in an Alaska Native Village

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 other game,” said Franklin. “Everywhere mines have gone in, they’ve made a mess, and that would hurt a lot of people.” Another referendum that caught their attention was a measure to increase the minimum wage.

“This is a very serious election,” said Franklin.

Simultaneously, Alaska Natives’ voting access has suddenly increased. About 200 villages have early-voting sites this year, most for the first time. Though official figures are not yet available, turnout appears high. Togiak’s absentee voting official Andrea Logusak ran out of ballots twice during Alaska’s two-week early-voting period. “People kept coming and coming,” she said. 

Improved language assistance—thanks to the recent, successful Toyukak v. Treadwell voting-rights lawsuit—makes it easier for those who are not proficient in English to vote. “One elder had trouble with the English ballot, but when I gave him a Yup’ik one, he had no more questions and was done voting in a few minutes,” Logusak said.

“People here have felt disenfranchised, but now they don’t,” said Corey Cejka. She is a village field organizer for Democrat Mark Begich, who is trying to hold on to his Senate seat. If he wins, it’ll likely be due to backing from Alaska Natives, largely because of his support for their subsistence hunting and fishing rights. This year, the Native vote is a crucial swing vote in several races, including for the Senate in South Dakota and for the House in Montana and Arizona.

Cejka is going door-to-door to offer Togiak residents Election Day rides to the polls. So are Stephanie Poulsen and Angel Ayojiak, shown above; they are among the voter support specialists hired throughout the region by Grace Mulipola, Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s early-voting project manager. 

As the election winds down, the whole village is invited to a potluck at the senior center. They’ll celebrate exercising their right to vote and, they hope, the success of the candidates and ballot measures they supported.

Text and photographs by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.

Making Voting Friendly, the Alaska Native Way

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.

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

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 in Alaska’s cities.

Coupled with a tight Senate race that may determine which party controls that chamber, the new access makes the Alaska Native vote—potentially one-fifth of the electorate—a power to be reckoned with. Senatorial candidate Mark Begich (D) has offices in rural communities and will be there on election day, helping ensure that every eligible voter gets to cast a ballot, said Zack Fields, Alaska Democratic Party communications director. His opponent, Dan Sullivan (R), is relying more on traditional political advertising to reach this group.

In a meeting on October 31 at BBNC’s headquarters in Anchorage (shown below), leaders from around the state explained where they are now. Local early-vote coordinators are on the go, with lists in hand of registered voters in their area. “They’re emailing, going door-to-door, phoning and going on radio open lines to get the word out,” said April Ferguson, senior vice president and general counsel of BBNC, one of the regional Native corporations.

Surprising problems arose. “People weren’t familiar with early voting and worried their ballot wouldn’t be counted,” Ferguson said. “A lot of education needed to be done.”

Still, according to Ana Swanson, communications intern with Bering Straits Native Corporation, “Everyone’s aware of early voting now. We’re on an upward spiral.”

The villages’ new absentee voting officials also required assistance. The state gave them about five minutes of training for a complex and demanding job, said Adrian LeCornu, a fellow at First Alaskans Institute. “As a result, they were very frustrated. So, we partnered with the Department of Elections and created a webinar that explained early voting, how to deal with a special needs voter and more.”

“The state has not been particularly helpful,” said Allred. That extends to providing those who aren’t English-proficient with a ballot in their own language, something mandated under the Voting Rights Act. Though Alaska Natives have won federal lawsuits to ensure the state lives up to the law, the process has been rocky. Some translations given to early voters this year have been poor, said Ferguson. In one polling place, she added, there was no ballot available in one voter’s language, so election workers offered ballots in a succession of other languages, as though any one might do.

Village by village, voter by voter, the Alaska Native leadership is making sure their people can exercise their right to vote. And by the way, they’ve all early-voted.

Text and photographs by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.

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

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, Fred Augustine of Alakanuk, the Native Village of Hooper Bay, the Arctic Village Council, and the Village of Venetie Council.

“Juk drin Diiginjik K'yaa geereekhyaa geenjit gaayii gwiriltsaii. Shoo tr'aadlit ts'a' hai' tr'oonyaa,” said Allan Hayton, of plaintiff Arctic Village Council, in Gwich’in. Today we have won a victory for speaking our language. We are happy and thankful.”

Responding to the ruling, Alaska’s lieutenant governor and chief elections official Mead Treadwell announced that the state will upgrade language-assistance efforts. It will provide the court with its plan to do so within a few days.

Alaska Federation of Natives president Julie Kitka, who is Chugach Eskimo, commented, “The law is the law. We hope this signals a new chapter for Alaska’s elections.”

The state’s language-assistance blunders were continual and serious, according to Toyukak v. Treadwell court records. A ballot measure about parental consent for minors’ abortions was translated as pertaining to parental permission “to become pregnant.” “Absentee voting” was rendered as “voting for a long time.” About one mistranslation, an official emailed, “What the heck, it’s a similar word and hope that it goes right over their heads!☺.”

The judge’s decision on remaining constitutional claims, relating to Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment equal-rights protections, is forthcoming, said plaintiffs’ attorney James Tucker, of Wilson Elser, in Las Vegas. Alaska has a history of discrimination. Until the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, which sent Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act back to Congress, the entire state was under Department of Justice scrutiny for election matters. Just three-and-one-half years ago, the state settled another Native-language suit, Nick v. Bethel. The discrimination has contributed to low turnout among Native voters, according to Tucker.

Plaintiffs’ counsel Natalie Landreth, of Native American Rights Fund, noted that Alaska’s English-speaking voters receive 100-page official election pamphlets with advance explanations of candidates, ballot measures and the like. Meanwhile Native-language speakers have received minimal data, such as election dates and places, forcing them to postpone important decisions until they had a ballot in hand. “That is a violation of the law, and it has to change, now,” said Landreth, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.

At the polls, Native-language speakers typically received minimal help in making their decisions, court records show. The state used just one Yup’ik dialect for translations into that language, even though speakers of other dialects don’t necessarily understand it. The state didn’t necessarily confirm translators’ skills; if they couldn’t interpret a voting-related term, they used English, even though they knew non-English-speaking voters wouldn’t understand.

The Toyukak decision follows closely another major win for Alaska Native voters. In July, AFN and ANCSA Regional Association obtained equal access to in-person absentee voting for the first time in many Native villages across the state, according to AFN general counsel Nicole Borromeo, who is Athabascan from McGrath Native Village.

The Traditional Village of Togiak, a Toyukak plaintiff, foresaw improvements: “Quyana cakneq, caliilerpekun kaiyurluta, wankuta yuggtun naaqituulini. Cucuukicetaat nutaan assinruciiqut! [Thank you very much for your work helping us, those of us who speak Yup’ik. Voting will now be a lot better!]”

Text and photographs by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.

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

An Alaska Native village in November; courtesy attorney Jim Tucker.
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. “In late June, AFN and ANCSA sat down with the state and said, ‘we will sign up the locations,’” recalled Borromeo. The state agreed, and the Native team began seeking groups and individuals to handle the election activities.

“Eleven days later, we had added 128 locations,” said Borromeo. “We have been entirely focused on this.” The goal is to bring equal voting rights to all of Alaska’s 200-plus indigenous villages, she said.

This has been a Native-led project, according to Borromeo: “We identified the problem, we identified the solution, and we made it happen. Now, the state has to play its part and do election training. We’ll be monitoring to be sure it happens. We intend to be a long-term partner in this effort.”

The project’s success shows that voting rights can be provided quickly and efficiently when there’s a will to do it, said Natalie Landreth, member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and a Native American Rights Fund plaintiffs’ attorney litigating the Alaska Native voting-rights case Toyukuk v. Treadwell.

Media coverage of the just-concluded trial helped the Native team convince the state to let it set up the new voting centers, said Borromeo: “It was the perfect political storm.”

“Our people have a hunger to vote,” she added. “They go to huge lengths to do so, and overcome barriers no one else in the country faces.” Just to get to the polls, Alaska Native voters cope with fierce winter weather, vast distances and, in one village photographed by James Tucker, another Toyukuk v. Treadwell plaintiffs’ attorney, a raging river that separates two precincts sharing one ballot box. Pollworkers in a small launch brave ice-filled water to transport the box across the water, Tucker said.

The pressure of survival in a demanding environment is another hurdle. “During the election season, many rural voters are busy with subsistence activities and may not be near their polling place on Election Day,” said Jason Metrokin, ANCSA chair. The new centers expand their options and give them the same access as urban Alaskans, Metrokin said.

Once Alaska Native voters get to the polls, the traditional-language speakers need translation of election materials. However, testimony in Toyukuk v. Treadwell exposed yet another obstacle: longstanding systemic problems in the state’s delivery of federally mandated language assistance. (The judge’s decision is expected shortly.)

Lieutenant Governor Mark Treadwell, the lawsuit’s lead defendant, recently announced that the new locations will make 2014 election ballots “the most widely available in state history.”

That has the potential to transform politics in a state where indigenous people make up a fifth of the population. Said AFN president, Julie Kitka, “Having access to early voting is only the first step. Now our people need to learn about this right and understand what they’re being asked to vote on. There is much more work to be done by the state’s Division of Elections.”

c. Stephanie Woodard.