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Alaska Natives prepare for Palin’s exit

WASHINGTON – Gov. Sarah Palin’s surprise announcement that she would resign from her position, effective July 26, has some Alaska Natives reflecting on her past and hoping for better policies under her successor.

Like many Americans, Mike Williams, chair of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, said he was taken off guard that Palin would decide to give up her seat mid-term.

“To vacate her position early is pretty concerning. It leaves questions about her character – but maybe it will turn out to be a good thing for Alaska Natives.”

The governor said her resignation is in Alaska’s best interest. She feels that ongoing ethics probes and media scrutiny of her and her family have been disruptive and have consumed too many state resources. She has not said whether she will pursue higher office, nor has she laid out her future work plans.

Palin’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on how her stepping down will affect issues of specific interest to Alaska Natives. Her state contains the vast majority – more than 200 – of the federally-recognized tribes in the nation.

Palin’s stances on Alaska Native issues became well-known in Indian country after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., selected her to be his running mate during Election 2008.

Of substantial concern to critics was that Palin, as governor, became the de facto head of several state lawsuits that Natives argue have hurt their fishing and hunting subsistence rights, and have harmed tribal sovereignty and language preservation efforts.

Still, Palin forged ahead with the suits that many viewed as detrimental to tribes.

Meghan Stapleton, an aide to the governor, tried to rebut the criticisms, telling Indian Country Today during the presidential campaign that the governor “understands the concerns of rural Alaska and the importance of preserving the culture of the state’s first people.”

Before the presidential election, Palin relayed support for Native issues. She noted in a 2006 campaign letter that her husband, Todd Palin, and children are of Yup’ik Eskimo descent. They also hold shares in at least two Alaska Native corporations.

She wrote in a campaign letter that she “so very much appreciate[s] Alaska’s first people, their proud heritage and diverse cultures so abundant in the communities throughout our state.”

Palin also promised to support tribal economic development and fishing subsistence issues, while noting a personal fondness for Native culture.

Detractors said Palin didn’t follow through on her promises, believing she tended to hold state interests above tribal interests at most all points in her tenure.

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Heather Kendall-Miller, an Athabascan lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund who is based in Alaska, said Palin’s positions on Native issues actually became worse after she and McCain lost the presidential election.

“When her attorney general stepped down after tiring of defending her against the onslaught of ethics complaints that were filed after the election, she attempted to replace him with an attorney that has a notorious reputation of opposing subsistence rights,” Kendall-Miller said.

“The Alaska Native community had to fight hard to keep him from being confirmed. The fact that she would even consider an anti-subsistence proponent for the state’s most important legal position suggests that she has no interest in understanding the importance of subsistence to Alaska Native people.”

Kendall-Miller has long been a strong proponent of President Barack Obama, and helped write and distribute critical information about Palin’s record during the presidential campaign. She was also considered for a role in the Obama administration earlier this year.

Williams said that it’s not just outspoken critics of the governor who have had problems with her policies. He and many of the tribal citizens he represents feel Palin’s record has been disappointing.

He is hopeful that the state’s current lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, will be better for tribes once he replaces Palin, as is scheduled for month’s end.

“Parnell has had a lot of experience in the state legislature,” Williams said. “He has lots more knowledge on legal issues that tribes face than Palin does.

“I would recommend to Parnell that he sits down with the tribes and talks about improving tribal relations.”

Kendall-Miller said not to expect miracles from Parnell, as “it is more likely that he will simply continue the policies that Palin put into place upon taking office.”

She added that it is unclear as of yet where Parnell stands on Alaska Native issues.

Despite the critiques of Palin from many tribal members, the soon-to-be-former governor does have some Native supporters.

Ken Johns, president of the Ahtna Inc. Alaska Native Corporation, said he is sad to see Palin leave the governor’s office.

“I think she served the state very well,” Johns said, noting that some of her policies actually helped bring more money to some Alaska Native Corporations and Native individuals.

“I believe Sean Parnell will carry on the same policies of Sarah Palin. And that’s not a bad thing.”