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Palin candidacy shone light on Alaska Native issues

ANCHORAGE – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may not have been the most popular of candidates for American Indian voters in 2008, but she did manage to bring plenty of attention – both good and bad – to issues affecting Alaska Natives.

When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced in August that Palin would be his running mate, many in Indian country paid special attention to the fact that the governor is married to Todd Palin, who is of Yup’ik Eskimo descent. The couple’s five children are also of Alaska Native heritage.

Both supporters and detractors noted that Palin’s husband seemed to play a key role in her decision-making, and some said it would be especially helpful if he could help the general public understand more about tribal issues, especially those surrounding Alaska Native Corporations. The corporations were established in 1971 after Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which settled land and financial claims made by Alaska Natives and provided for the establishment of 13 regional corporations to administer those claims.

“There’s always a need to spread more knowledge about our issues, and Todd Palin is an excellent resource,” Jana McKeag, a co-chair of American Indians for McCain Coalition, told Indian Country Today in early September. Indian supporters also noted that Palin leads a state that contains more than 225 of the 560-plus federally-recognized tribes in the U.S.

While not much was initially mentioned in the press about Palin’s specific stances on Alaska Native issues, a letter she wrote while running for governor in October 2006 led some to believe that she was an advocate. “I personally feel the language, stories and traditions of Alaska Native cultures are a national treasure to be nourished and held close to our hearts. It is our rural lifestyle and diverse cultural heritage that distinguishes Alaska from the rest of the world and makes it our wonderful home.”

But soon came the other side of the story. ICT reported in mid-September that Democratic Natives in the state were raising allegations that Palin’s leadership has been harmful to Alaska Native subsistence fishing and hunting, tribal sovereignty and Alaska Native languages.

On the issues of subsistence fishing and hunting, Alaska Natives highlighted concerns that Palin had continued her state’s role in lawsuits that aimed to overturn indigenous rights in these areas. Regarding tribal sovereignty, it was revealed that she has argued that Alaska tribes have little authority to act as sovereign nations, especially in court cases involving the welfare of Native children. And, in respect to Alaska Native languages, critics said Palin’s office refused to provide language assistance to Yup’ik speaking voters.

Evon Peter, a former chief of the Neetsaii Gwich’in Tribe from Arctic Village, also made waves as a result of an essay he released Sept. 8, in which he expressed concerns on the governor’s support for energy development, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Indian supporters of the McCain/Palin ticket were quick to push back. Ken Johns, president of the Ahtna Inc. Alaska Native Corporation, told ICT in mid-September that it’s important to remember that Palin is the leader of the state of Alaska. “As part of her duties, it is her job to try to protect states’ rights,” he said. “As Natives, we have to push to be sure our issues are accounted for.”

Johns said many of the legal cases surrounding subsistence and sovereignty issues actually took root during former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski’s prior administration. On the energy front, Johns said he knew that some tribes have expressed concerns about Palin’s energy stances; but he also said it’s important to realize that some Alaska Native Corporations have made much money for tribal members as a result of their participation in energy projects.

Palin never substantially addressed the issues in the press, and, in the end, even some former American Indian supporters of Palin were not swayed by arguments that she is pro-Alaska Native.