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Election: The Message From Alaska Natives, ‘It’s Our Time’

When you think about elections, sometimes it’s important to forget about winning and losing, what matters are the people who vote making the choice.
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When you think about elections, sometimes it’s important to forget about winning and losing. There will always be a candidate who wins. And some folks will fall short. But what matters is the premise that the people who vote, determine the outcome. And so it often takes repeated trials to get even close to that lofty notion.

Perhaps no state reflects that contradiction more than Alaska.

Soon after the turn of the 20th century, Tlingit and Haida people were not allowed to vote despite repeated attempts. Then, even before statehood, clear back in 1925, the Alaska Territory required a literacy test in order to vote; a provision that remained in the law until 1970. Even today, legal challenges to Alaska Natives voting continue in many forms. “State election officials continue to ignore their responsibilities to Alaska Natives,” said James Tucker, co-counsel at Wilson Elser when filing a suit against the state on behalf of four tribal councils. “That indifference has contributed to depressed voter participation in the neglected Native communities, including some with turnout 20 to 30 percent lower than turnout in non-Native communities. It is unfortunate that Native voters have had to turn to the federal court to secure their fundamental right to vote.”

Indeed, that case, Toyukak versus Treadwell, ended in September when a federal district court ordered the state to provide voters information in Yup’ik and Gwich’in.

This is the background for the Alaska Native vote in 2014. This is a record with some success, such as being the decisive edge for Sen. Lisa Murkowski in her 2010 winning write-in election,

But what’s missing is anything close to parity. Alaska is the most Native of any state in the United States. There are only five Alaska Native members of the legislature in a state where nearly one-in-five citizens are Native. (Compared to 22 legislators in Oklahoma and a half dozen in Montana, states with a smaller percentage of Native Americans.)

Because of this imbalance the political establishment treats Alaska Native concerns as indifference.

Sure, during election season folks will say nice things. But this is the state that’s primary vehicle for negotiation with Alaska Native issues is litigation. It’s a state where “rural” is substituted for Alaska Native so that folks can pretend there are no special rights that trace back to time immemorial. It’s a state that tells the federal government to back off and stay out of the way on issues like subsistence hunting and fishing or land into trust, all the while demanding more money from the Indian Health Service so the state won’t have to build its own Medicaid program to better benefit all of its citizens (including Alaska Natives).

That’s why this election is different; it’s time to change the narrative.

Rhonda McBride, a reporter for Anchorage’s Channel 11 news, said she had been covering for many years and “never,” she said, “has there been such an intense focus on politics.”

Last week several thousand people attended the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage and that difference took center stage. Every where you turned there was a reminder to vote, and to tell someone else to vote, and again, someone else. The call to vote was so consistent and steady that it could not be ignored.

AFN published an extensive voting guide that looks at the election issues impacting Alaska Native voters. It also took the rare step of endorsing Sen. Mark Begich in his bid for re-election and Bill Walker, an independent candidate for governor, running with Byron Mallott, a Tlingit leader, as his lieutenant governor.

In fact one of the political highlights last week at AFN was a candidate forum that did not happen. Mallott was supposed to be on stage with his opponent, Republican Dan Sullivan, and talk back and forth about issues. But there was a scheduling conflict, so Mallott appeared by himself on Friday and Sullivan on Saturday.

That allowed Mallott to make the case. Not for himself. But for the idea of Alaska Native governance. He talked about growing up in Yakutat. “The expectation of us is that we would go away under BIA sponsorship to learn to be a tractor driver or a hair salon specialist,” he said. Very few went on to college … yet “somehow the love of our parents and families had settled within us. The message from elders, ‘it’s your time,’ was heard.”

That promise of it’s your time ought to be on the ballot as sun unfulfilled promise. One that is guaranteed to win — and soon. “So we celebrate Native people ... but we also celebrate the other Alaskans for their culture and heritage, all rising as one. If I am elected that's wonderful, it is just another step that our people have been taking for generations.”

Another step on that road to parity. Or as the elders said to Alaska Natives: It’s your time.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.