Alaska Gov. Bill Walker on Saturday, June 24, 2017 signed a bill into law officially designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day.
He signed the bill in the village of Utgiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, one of 28 communities represented by bill sponsor Rep. Dean Westlake, a Inupiaq Democrat from Kiana.
“Alaska’s Native Peoples are an integral part of the spiritual, cultural, political, and historic fabric of what is now the Last Frontier,” Governor Walker said. “This official recognition is just one way we as a state can acknowledge and celebrate the contributions made by First Peoples throughout the history of this land. I’m incredibly honored to sign this legislation.”
For the last two years, Walker had issued a one-year observance of Indigenous Peoples Day, but Westlake was able to make it permanent with HB 78.
“The designation is important in that for too long – and it doesn’t matter what race to me – we’ve been exclusive,” Westlake said a few days before the signing. “This needed to happen where there is a spirit of inclusiveness.”
Westlake received solid support each from the House (34-6) and Senate (19-1), but he said it wasn’t as easy as the margins suggest.
“I talked to people in the Senate who had concerns,” Westlake said. “One of them was saying. ‘We don’t want this to be something where you are pushing out Columbus. That’s absolutely not the case.
“What it is, is including us. We found Columbus. It just recognizes a time when the rest of the world met us. I can’t think of a better way to put it than that.”
Westlake, a Democrat serves with a majority caucus made up of 17 Democrats, three Republicans and two Independents.
He chairs the Arctic Policy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee and serves as vice chair of the House Resources Committee.
As chair of the Arctic Policy Committee, he immediately led the efforts to advance HJR5, which urges Congress to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development. ANWR and North Slope oil fields are all part of Westlake’s district.
He says he understands not every one of those coastal communities want ANWR developed, fearing spills and contamination.
“The safe route in my opinion is doing it on land; we can catch it (spills) on land,” he said. “With the ocean, we are guessing at best with spill prevention. If you want to develop anywhere in the Arctic, I think most people much prefer land.”
Westlake’s first term is also marked by joining three other rural lawmakers who demanded in writing an apology from fellow freshman lawmaker David Eastman whose remarks were deemed racist by many leaders in Alaska’s Native communities and the state Legislature.
“It shocks the conscience to think that a female in a village would want to endure the physical and the emotional pain of getting an abortion just so they can get a free trip to Anchorage,” said colleague Neal Foster, who joined Westlake in the apology call. “Most of the women who live in the villages that I represent are Alaska Native and they feel like these comments were directed toward them.”
Others followed and eventually Eastman was censured.
Eastman claimed that Medicaid’s funding for travel creates motivation for women living in Alaska’s rural communities to get pregnant then get an abortion
Eastman told Alaska Public Radio Network:
“We’ve created an incentive structure where people are now incented to carry their pregnancy longer than they would otherwise and then take part in that when they wouldn’t otherwise be doing it. I can think of a case that was brought to our attention earlier this session where you had a family who was very glad to hear that their abortion had gone beyond a certain point, because they were going to be heading to Seattle.”
Eastman’s sent off a torrent of calls for an apology that were never met, so he faced the state’s first censure vote in 23 years.
The apology never came until Eastman faced the censure vote on the floor, but it got lost in a long, rambling explanation for his comments.
"I hope that there will be no further times where something like this should happen,” Eastman said at the time by way of apology. "I do ask for forgiveness from any and every person who has been hurt by what I said.” ICMN has reached out to Eastman for comment.
“It was extremely disappointing to hear someone like that, someone in a position he holds, to say things like that,” Westlake said. “It was extremely offensive.
“To couch the apology in a way that says to the Legislature, to women and to Alaska Natives, ‘I’m so sorry you’re stupid; you didn’t understand me.’ That’s something I really found offensive.”
Westlake represents 28 communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs. That’s one state lawmaker representing enough land to cover Oregon and Ohio.
Finding Westlake on the House floor or in the Capitol isn’t too difficult.
With a heavy shock of dark hair, he walks the halls hardly without a smile. Inspired by a young man visiting Juneau from the community of Kiana, Westlake always reaches for a kuspuk, traditional lightweight, hooded clothing, to wear in hearings and on the House floor.
Former House Rep. Mary Sattler began a Legislative tradition that became known as kuspuk Friday, but Westlake has advanced that to an everyday fashion.
“This boy from home visited Juneau and he was wearing one of these, but he was feeling dejected because everyone else had a suit,” Westlake said. “It was Kuspuk Friday. He looked at me and he was so proud.
“I thought OK. I’m not wearing any more suits. I immediately got more kuspuks sent here from home. I’m proud of who I am and he should be to. I wanted him to feel good. Being proud together here has been one of my favorite moments.”