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Joaqlin Estus

Voter turnout was low – well below half – in 2020 in some parts of rural Alaska, where Alaska Natives are in the majority.

The National Congress of American Indians reports about 38 percent of registered voters in the Northwest Arctic Borough around Kotzebue voted in 2020. Nearly 70 percent of the population there is Alaska Native. In the Bethel census district, where 80 percent of the population is Alaska Native, turnout was 42 percent.

On the other hand, 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the Yukon-Koyukuk census district in interior Alaska, where 69 percent of the population is Alaska Native.

Alaska faces challenges getting the rest of rural Alaska to that high mark. (Turnout among U.S. registered voters in 2020 was 66 percent). This could be integral considering the number of Indigenous Alaskan candidates who are stepping into the state’s political arena.

“So just the geographic expanse of the whole state is very challenging in that the majority of rural Alaska is not on a road system, so you can't easily get them information,” said Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai.

Also, the message about how to vote is complicated: There are two elections going on. A special general election to fill the remaining months of the late Congressman Don Young’s term of office is coming up on Aug. 16.

The Aug. 16 primary will allow voters to fill the next two-year Congressional term as well as seats in the U.S Senate, and the state’s Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and most state House and Senate seats.

So on one side of the ballot, voters rank their top three choices in the special election. On the other side they pick one candidate for each office.

Now, try saying or writing all that in Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, or Gwich’in Athabascan.

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Twenty Indigenous languages are still spoken in Alaska. In a report to Congress on the Voting Rights Act, attorneys Natalie Landreth, Chickasaw, and Moira Smith said the largest groups of language speakers are Central Yup’ik (with about 10,000 speakers), Iñupiaq (more than 3,000), and Siberian Yup’ik (about 1,100).

Funumiai said the Division of Elections has a team of staff and translators who have put together election information in Native languages.

The bigger challenge, she said, is getting the message out to rural communities.

“A lot of what we do is on the internet. And they don't have great broadband and internet coverage out there,” she said.

It’s also difficult to target certain audiences with certain languages via the internet and television, said the division’s Public Relations Manager Tiffany Montemayor.

She said the division has translations of videos, radio public service announcements, and printed materials.

“We've done translated versions of, in fact, everything we've pretty much done as far as education goes since last year and I believe we are doing more in translated materials in rural areas than we've probably ever done before”.

Funumiai said the division mails English language and translated materials to households.

“Of course, that relies on the post office. Relying on the post office – we all know that there are some concerns (due to a shortage of postal workers) about how the post office is able to deliver mail and keep post offices in rural Alaska,” Fenumiai said.

“They don't always necessarily have regular newspapers in publication. We're trying radio. We do a lot on the radio,” she said.

Get Out the Native Vote roundtable hosted by Get Out the Native Vote and the Alaska Federation of Natives Aug. 10, 2022. Clockwise from top left, Michelle Sparck, Sarah Lukin, Wáahlaal Gíidaak Barbara Blake, and Joelle Hall. (Screenshot by Joaqlin Estus, ICT)

Recently, Fenumiai visited rural Alaska, where she and staff did radio shows in regional hub communities, one with a live translation, the other in Yup’ik. The division also runs bilingual public service announcements on public radio statewide.

“We have broad coverage on radio in translated advertisements related to voter registration deadlines, election day, absentee, by mail, information about ranked choice voting.”

The next challenge will be to have translators at the polls. Fenumiai said older poll workers have been leaving the field and others haven’t stepped up to take their places.

“We strive very hard to have bilingual poll workers so a poll worker may be available to provide translation to voters. If not, a voter can bring anybody of their choice (with a few exceptions such as employers) with them to assist them and explain the voting process to them,” she said.

Michele Sparck, head of the nonprofit Get Out the Native Vote said she’s working with a range of organizations to hold training sessions and add to state efforts.

She said the division’s website is full of everything voters need to know. “But for us and for rural Alaska and for not-strong English speakers, and being a broadband desert in a lot of rural areas, it's not as if we really can go on there and solicit the information that we need specifically for our concerns at all times,” Sparck said.

“It's really a lot of information to slog through, and that's why it's important for organizations like Get Out the Native Vote is to start trying to create a groundswell of voter education and outreach so that people are more familiar and confident about upcoming elections and know what they're gonna be faced with when they, when they look at their ballots,” she said.

“We're sending materials and we're doing trainings with as many boots on the ground as we can right now,” Sparck said.

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Indigenizing elections

As a successful candidate for the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly, Wáahlaal Gíidaak, who is Haida, Tlingit, and Ahtna Athabascan, has been through the election process.

At a recent roundtable hosted by Get Out the Native Vote and the Alaska Federation of Natives,, Wáahlaal Gíidaak said one way to get out the Native vote is to show people the ties between their vote and their daily lives.

In western and interior Alaska, people are deeply concerned about the near disappearance of king and chum salmon from the Yukon River and other waterways. Some attribute it to factory trawlers that fish the high seas for cod and scoop up salmon as bycatch.

“Our governor gets to decide who's going to sit on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council makes decisions about how much bycatch is allowed in our ocean,” said Wáahlaal Gíidaak.

She gives that as an example of how elected officials’ decision making correlates directly with peoples’ daily lives.

“My ability to go out and hunt freely and live our Indigenous way of life freely is all dependent on our leadership and identifying exactly how those leaders are making decisions or have direct influence and direct decision-making power over those different bodies,” she said.

“There's only a few things that we unite around as Native people. And one of them is our way of life, our hunting, fishing, and gathering practices,” Wáahlaal Gíidaak said.

She said western systems have failed Natives over and over on various issues.

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To change that, “there has to be a driver, something that we find passionate, something that we actually can see influencing our daily lives.

“Often that comes in the shape of a Native candidate. That's one of our people who are standing up and getting out front and ready to run and ready to be in office,” Wáahlaal Gíidaakk said.

She said it’s important to encourage Alaska Natives who are running for office or have been elected and to remind them they’re not alone. Give them “the opportunity and the encouragement to know that ‘we see you in this space. We want you there, it's important that you step up. We see you can do it,’ and that ‘we believe in you.’”

She said she never would have considered running for office if her people hadn’t pushed her into that space, “if there hadn't been leaders who said ‘it's time,’” Wáahlaal Gíidaak said.

Alaska bilingual voting education materials, Aug. 12, 2022 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

She said Native elected officials are often the only Native in a governmental body.

“And it's a lonely place to be the only Native voice in those spaces on a regular basis,” she said.

“We know that these spaces weren't built for us. We know that these spaces continue to ignore our voices and continue to operate in a way that makes it just exclusionary for our people.

“But the more we can step in there and the more that we can just lift them (our elected Native leaders) up and be there for them and, and get involved, the easier it makes it for each and every one of them to continue to carry that voice,” Wáahlaal Gíidaak said.

Her final point at the roundtable was about the use of her Haida name.

Instead of her western name of Barbara Blake, she had the Juneau city and borough put her Haida name, Wáahlaal Gíidaak, on her name plate.

“Each and every person who addresses me in those assembly chambers has to say my name, has to use one word in the Haida language and be able to speak it on a regular basis.”

“So it's important to continue to even make those tiny little cracks and inroads in these systems and to uphold our responsibility to continue to decolonize as best we can,” Wáahlaal Gíidaak said.

Other roundtable participants shared tips for on-the-ground organizing as well.

Sarah Lukin, who is Alutiiq, is chief strategy officer for CIRI, the regional for-profit corporation for the Cook Inlet region in south central Alaska. At the roundtable, she laid out several tactics people can take to boost voter turnout, such as identifying a lead organization in your region to rally support. It can be a tribe, a health organization, a regional nonprofit or a corporation, she said. All can help in a coordinated approach.

Other tips she shared: Reach out to individuals in each community to lead local efforts. Send out regular and frequent communications to voters. Use social media, emails, newsletters, local media, presentations, and even one-on-one conversations. The information is complex and bears repeating, she said.

Lukin said to remember in some communities, everyone is tuned into local VHF radio. So written scripts to be read over VHF can be effective. Also, she suggested people consider ways to get people to the polls on election day.

The Alaska Federation of Natives has disseminated scripts for social media. One said:

“Alaska Native people represent approximately 22 percent of the statewide population. If all Native people voted during a normal turnout year, the Native vote has the ability to influence the direction of the state more than any other special interest group.”

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