SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The former Alaska governor and current Democratic
candidate for the United States Senate feels that he has much to thank
Native Alaskans for. The two-term governor said that the state's Native
Alaskan population provided the margin of his narrow 535-vote victory in
his first bid for governor in a Republican state in 1994.
As Tony Knowles told it, at midnight on Election Day he was 3,000 votes
behind his Republican opponent James O. Campbell.
"My wife and I were already figuring out what to do with the rest of our
lives in the face of a political defeat," said Knowles.
Though the lead seemed insurmountable in a state that only has around
400,000 registered voters what happened next was something that is seen
only rarely in elections. As the Nome district began to announce its
results in districts that run over 90 percent Eskimo and some of the
demo-graphically heavy Athabaskan districts in the state's interior Knowles
quickly closed the gap and took the lead literally at the last minute
barely besting Campbell.
Knowles said that the meaning of the Native Alaskan vote is not lost on him
and freely credits them for his victory.
Recently Knowles agreed to a far-ranging interview on a number of subjects
that he feels important to Indian country. An invitation to his Republican
opponent Sen. Lisa Murkowski has also been extended to share her views on
Indian issues. Both are running in a state where the Alaska Native vote is
Indeed the Alaska Native vote could help decide the politics on a national
scale. Making up 15.6 percent of Alaska's population, Alaska Natives form
an important constituency in a state where the Senate race could tip the
balance of the entire United States Senate because of their Senate race and
the closely-divided nature of the Senate in which Republicans gained a slim
majority in the 2002 midterm elections.
The closely-divided Senate hangs in the balance of a handful of races and
not least among them is the state of Alaska, where Knowles and Murkowski
are locked in a tight race and the latest polls show Knowles with a slight
46 percent to 43 percent lead.
Adding drama to the race are charges of nepotism against Murkowski who
assumed the Senate seat in 2002 after her father, former Senator Frank
Murkowski selected her to replace him after he succeeded Knowles as
governor to finish out his Senate term. It should be noted that Lisa
Murkowski was elected to the Alaska state House three times and was chosen
While there are no specific figures available for the party affiliations of
Alaska Natives, the "Last Frontier" is the veritable Wild West of American
politics. Though Alaska almost always has voted for Republican presidential
candidates since it was granted statehood in 1959, its own electorate shows
a much bigger independent streak. It is the only state in the union where
third party and independent voters make up the majority of the electorate -
52 percent of all registered voters.
In fact, the man that Knowles replaced as governor was a member of the
Alaska Independence Party.
The Oklahoma-born Knowles feels that he fits perfectly into this
independent mindset. An issue that divides both Democratic politicians and
Alaska Natives, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve,
(ANWR) perhaps best highlights Knowles' independent streak. In a state
where it would be political suicide to oppose ANWR drilling, Knowles finds
himself at odds with the Democratic Party establishment and Democratic
presidential nominee John Kerry.
Knowles acknowledges that it is a difficult position for some of the tribes
who have been divided over the project. Notable opposition has come from
the Gwich'in people who had a public dispute with the neighboring Inupiat
people over ANWR drilling which led to a heated floor debate on the floor
of the National Congress of the American Indian in 2002. The Gwich'in
charge that the Inupiat favor drilling because they would make money off
Though his views are in opposition to some of the traditional tribes in
regard to ANWR drilling, Knowles became a champion of subsistence fishing
rights, a big issue among many Alaska Natives, when he refused to appeal a
case to federal appeals while he was governor. The case surrounded an
85-year-old Athabaskan grandmother named Katie John and another tribal
elder named Doris Charles who fought the state of Alaska for her right to
fish to feed her family.
Knowles spent a day with John and her family at her Native village and was
moved enough by the experience that he introduced an amendment to the
Alaska state constitution guaranteeing subsistence rights to Native
"I knew the state of Alaska must never fight against subsistence rights
again," Knowles said about his visit to the Athabaskan village.
Knowles is also aligned with the Gwich'in when it comes to Arctic
pollutants, something the tribe has been active in publicizing. Pollutants
from the earth's temperate areas have concentrated in the Arctic and have
made it into the food chain where they can have severe effects, especially
in a subsistence society.
While governor Knowles signed an international treaty to reduce persistent
organic pollutants and vows if elected to the Senate to push for the entire
United States to do the same.
Knowles also claims to be the first Alaska governor who recognized tribal
sovereign rights and assigns a great deal of importance to the concept of
sovereignty, something that he vows he will take with him to the Senate.