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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The Alaska Native community is ready to support an Alaska Native candidate to fill the state’s sole Congressional seat if and when one steps forward.

U.S. Rep. Don Young died March 18 at age 88. Special elections will be held to decide who finishes his term, set to expire in January. In addition, there will be regular elections to decide who will hold the seat for the next two-year term, beginning in January.

Board Chairman Sheri Buretta, Alutiiq, of the Alaska Native Chugach Alaska Corporation, praised Congressman Don Young’s legacy as the longest-serving representative to serve in the House and a “tireless advocate for the Alaska Native people.”

“As we look ahead to the next chapter, Alaska Native leadership at the Congressional level is critical not only to protect our lands, people, and natural resources, but also to continue fulfilling the vision for a thriving Alaska future that Congressman Young worked so hard to fulfill,” Buretta said.

Alaska Federation of Natives co-chair Joe Nelson, Tlingit, said Alaska’s Congressional seat is unique in that to be effective, it’s especially important that the individual be able to build connections, something he said Alaska Natives are good at.

“It helps to have many meaningful relationships and the ability to take the long view,” Nelson said.

“Alaska Native people have that advantage built in. We have always been here, we aren’t going anywhere, and we’re all related. That allows us to comfortably make decisions in the best interest of everyone, including future generations.

(Related: Don Young's legacy in Indian Country and beyond)

“Over his tenure, Congressman Young created the same advantage. He was here a long time, he knew everyone, and he worked for the best interest of all of Alaska,” Nelson said.

In this Aug. 26, 2020, photo, U.S. Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, speaks during a ceremony in Anchorage, Alaska, celebrating the opening of a Lady Justice Task Force cold case office which will specialize in cases involving missing or murdered Indigenous women. Young announced Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, on Twitter that he has tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

“The Native community isn’t all on the left or all on the right. We’re a large common sense bunch of Indigenous people who can and should rise to the occasion. Our planet is thirsty for Indigenous wisdom right now,” he said.

There are five Indigenous voting members in Congress, all in the House: Republican Yvette Herrell, Cherokee, of New Mexico; Oklahoma Republicans Tom Cole, Chickasaw Nation; Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee Nation; Native Hawaiian Kai Kahele, Democrat of Hawaii.

Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, a Democrat elected in 2018 from Kansas House District 3, is the fifth. She has advocated for Native people to run for office and advocated to get out the Native vote even as she advocates for Natives on issues affecting them.

In 2020, Davids was excited at the prospect (which didn’t come to fruition) of a Native woman as a candidate for vice president, noting that Native people were taking the reins in state legislatures and the federal government.

Candidate Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, before winning a seat in Congress in 2018. Kansas Republicans are keen on making sure that new voters are added to Davids’ district ensuring her defeat. In a recent tweet, Davids calls the system for redistricting “broken.” (Photo by Mark Trahant, Indian Country Today)

Meanwhile, two prominent candidates who had earlier announced plans to run against the late-U.S. Rep. Don Young also intend to run to serve out the remainder of this term.

Republican Nick Begich and Democrat Christopher Constant plan to run in both races. Begich’s campaign manager, Truman Reed, confirmed Begich’s plans. Constant confirmed his plans in an interview with The Associated Press.

Monday, Alaska Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer announced the dates of the special elections: June 11 for the special primary and Aug. 16, the same date as the regular primary election. The candidate elected on Aug. 16 will serve until the winner of November‘s general election is seated.

For the first time, the primary will be an all by mail election, Gail Fenumiai, Alaska division of elections director, said at a Monday press conference.

The top four vote-getters in the special primary will advance to a special election in which ranked choice voting will be used, said Jason Grenn, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections.

Grenn was a sponsor of the initiative passed by voters in 2020 that called for open primaries and ranked voting in general elections. The special primary and special election will be the first time the process is used in state elections since the initiative’s passage.

This will be the first special election for a Congressional seat since Don Young was elected in a special election in 1973. His opponent in the general election that year had died.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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