Indian Country Today
A Han Gwitch’in Athabascan woman wants to remove a blot from her teenage daughter’s reputation and help change some of the attitudes and behavior that contribute to the state’s soaring rates of violence against Alaska Native women.
So Jody Potts is telling the story of inappropriate advances aimed at her almost two years ago by Alaska’s former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Tlingit. Mallott died of a heart attack in May.
Mallott’s actions of 2018 had serious consequences. As word of the incident spread, he resigned. He and then-Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent, had been in a losing reelection campaign. Once Mallott left, Walker pulled out of the race.
Potts had kept her identity private. However, she told Indian Country Today a “partisan blogger” came up with a story that painted a darker picture than the actual event. The blogger claimed Mallott, age 76 at the time, had made inappropriate advances toward a 16-year-old girl and that the girl’s mother was having an affair with Mallott. The misinformation was widely repeated.
“Those rumor articles didn't explicitly say my name, but they described me so well in the articles that people knew they were talking about me and then who my 16-year-old daughter is, you know?” Potts told Indian Country Today. “And so that was just really awful, for sure.”
At school, other students were asking her daughter, “What happened?” and “What did Byron Mallott do to you?”
The problem is, Potts said, Mallott had not made advances toward her 16-year-old daughter. And there was no affair. Mallott did make advances toward Potts, though.
Potts believes the lies were intended to cause political damage by making the incident, as bad as it was, seem even worse by making the victim a teenager instead of a 41-year-old woman.
Potts recently told the full story to the Anchorage Daily News, which won a Pulitzer Prize in May for its reporting on rural justice and sexual assault, a project led by reporter Kyle Hopkins in partnership with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
“We just really needed to get the truth out there in order to protect my daughter,” Potts said Thursday in an interview with Indian Country Today. “I was trying to be sensitive culturally [to Mallott’s family]. But also, you know, my daughter's 18 now. She has her whole life ahead of her. So it was really important to be able to, you know, get that truth out there.”
In October 2018, the largest statewide gathering of Alaska Natives was about to start. Thousands of people were arriving in Anchorage for the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.
Walker, Mallott and their staff had traveled from Juneau. Potts, a dog musher and village public safety officer who worked for the nonprofit tribal entity Tanana Chiefs Conference, had traveled from Fairbanks. On Oct. 14, 2018, Potts met with the governor and lieutenant governor in an Anchorage state office building as part of a tribal advisory group. In the hallway, Mallott asked her to meet again afterward.
Potts mentioned to her supervisor, the head of Tanana Chiefs Conference, that she was headed to a hotel to meet with Mallott and Walker. When he inquired about the topic, she said she didn’t know. But she thought to herself it might be so they could talk about how she could help their reelection campaign or maybe to offer her a job. In passing, she also mentioned the meeting to the governor’s chief of staff and to her father.
At the hotel, Mallott was alone in the room where they were to meet. Potts said he told her he was “powerfully attracted” to her and hoped the feeling was reciprocal.
Potts told the Anchorage Daily News, “In my mind I wanted to cuss him out and tell him that I’m absolutely not interested and remind him that he was an old man. But because of his power, I also realized I couldn’t offend or alarm him for fear of repercussions to my career.”
She told him she was shocked. The Anchorage Daily News quoted her as having written later, “The power dynamic in this situation with the Lt. Governor actually scared me. The amount of power this man held, the deception to get me to his room, the comments he was making, the insinuation that I should submit to him sexually, his effort to manipulate me, his ability to destroy me, all made me feel powerless and fear for my career and livelihood.”
She said she felt sick and her legs shook. Mallott continued to describe his feelings for her until she eventually said she really had to leave and walked out.
Potts was training for a marathon at the time and wore a heart-monitor watch. She later took a screenshot of the monitor showing her pulse skyrocketed during their talk. Later that night, Potts went to the ER and was treated for heart palpitations.
She told her supervisor and two friends about the incident immediately afterward. The Anchorage Daily News reports several people corroborated details of her account.
The next day, news of the incident rippled through the Native community. Mallott told his chief of staff, Claire Richardson, he had told Potts he found her “powerfully attractive.” Mallott disputed the implication he “lured” Potts to the hotel by saying the governor was going to be there. Richardson said Mallott seemed to think the incident ended “benignly.” Then came Mallott’s resignation, the governor’s withdrawal from the reelection campaign, and the election of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican.
Potts said she’s speaking out now, almost two years later, for several reasons. One is that her daughter is still being harassed by people who blame her for the political fallout from Mallott’s actions.
Another reason, Potts said, is that abuse of power is still a problem at the highest levels of Alaska state government.
This summer, Dunleavy put Attorney General Kevin Clarkson on a month’s unpaid administrative leave for having made inappropriate advances to a female junior state worker. An Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica investigation revealed Clarkson, a married man who touts his Christian faith, had sent more than 550 texts and emails in one month to the younger woman. The texts included kiss emoji, invitations for her to have wine at his home, and praise for her looks. Dunleavy didn’t fire Clarkson, and accepted his resignation only after the details were published.
“Alaska has the worst rate, the highest rates of violence against women,” Potts said. “The beliefs and attitude that contribute to the high rates of violence against women in Alaska are some of the same beliefs that I feel like contributed to the trauma of my daughter and I through this whole bad experience.”
Potts said she has received an outpouring of love and support since sharing her story. She feels a sense of relief knowing she should not feel shame or fear.
“I just really encourage women to be strong and, and to know we're all standing with them,” she said.
Potts said before coming forward publicly, she told a friend she was nervous and scared about how people would react. “And she said, ‘If there's any blowback, just know that there are thousands of Native women standing behind you,'" Potts said. "Just that visual was powerful.”
Potts said she’s also speaking out to urge tribal leaders “to support and stand with our women who come forward about any type of abuse or violence, be it abuse of power and victimization or sexual assault or anything in between.
“I think the leaders, when they're silent about violence against our women, they’re part of the problem too. They can't forget that women are the life-givers and the backbone of our tribal nations. And ... there's so much harm done to our women that it's really harming all of our communities.”
Once tribal leaders stand strong and support women who speak out, “healing can begin,” Potts said.
Joaqlin Estus is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today. Based in Anchorage, she’s a longtime Alaska journalist.
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