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

This article appeared on Indian Country Media Network in 2014. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

“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,” she said. “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 here 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 c. Stephanie Woodard.

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