Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin “has cited her husband’s and children’s Alaska Native heritage as signs that she is committed to and well-versed on Native issues” [“Native ‘first dude’ holds power,” Vol. 28, Iss. 14]. Other Indian Country Today reporting has included the claim of W. Ron Allen, a member of the American Indians for McCain Coalition and chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, that “if she and Sen. McCain are elected, it would provide a basis for a stronger Indian policy” [“Republican Natives react favorably to Palin VP selection,” Vol. 28, Iss. 14].
The trouble with both of these comments is that she has been a vociferous opponent of Native rights in Alaska, according to Native rights attorney Lloyd Miller of Anchorage and other leaders in the Alaska Native community.
Once in office, Palin continued litigation that seeks to overturn every subsistence fishing determination the federal government has ever made in Alaska. The goal of Palin’s lawsuit is to invalidate all the subsistence fishing regulations the federal government has issued to date to protect Native fishing and to diminish subsistence fishing rights in order to expand sport and commercial fishing. Palin has also sought to invalidate critical determinations the Federal Subsistence Board has made regarding customary and traditional uses of game, specifically to take hunting opportunities away from Native subsistence villagers and thereby enhance sport hunting.
Palin opposes Alaska tribal sovereignty. Palin argues that Alaska tribes have no authority to act as sovereigns, despite their recognition. So extreme is she on tribal sovereignty issues that she has sought to block tribes from exercising any authority whatsoever, even over the welfare of Native children, adhering to a 2004 legal opinion issued by the former Republican governor that no such jurisdiction exists (except when a state court transfers a matter to a tribal court). Thankfully, both the state and federal courts have struck down Palin’s policy of refusing to recognize the sovereign authority of Alaska tribes to address issues involving Alaska Native children.
Palin also has refused to accord proper respect to Alaska Native languages and voters by refusing to provide language assistance to Yup’ik-speaking Alaska Native voters. As a result, she was just ordered by a special three-judge panel of federal judges to provide various forms of voter assistance to Yup’ik voters residing in southwest Alaska. Citing years of state neglect, Palin was ordered to provide trained poll workers who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local tribes to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court to track the state’s efforts.
Measured against some of the rights that are most fundamental to Alaska Native tribes – the subsistence way of life, tribal sovereignty and voting rights – Palin’s record is dismal despite her husband’s Native heritage.
– G. Michael Harmon