Watching Alaska politics, for me, has been like looking back in time. The animosity of state institutions toward Alaska Natives is all too familiar. It’s Arizona during the 1950s and 1960s. Or Washington state during the 1960s and 1970s. Or Montana just after the turn of the new century. Not that those states are perfect now. Far from it. But what’s reflected in Alaska is a list of official state acts that show contempt for Alaska Native concerns.
Alaska voters just flipped on the time machine and zoomed forward. Welcome to the 21st century, Alaska.
The story is both improbable and historic. The year started with a three-way race for governor.
The current governor, Sean Parnell, who has been zealous litigant against Native interests during his time in office. His message was consistent: No to sovereignty. No to rethinking subsistence hunting and fishing in a way that would work for people who’ve managed game and fisheries for tens of thousands of years. And even a no when it came to ending court cases that Alaska Natives had already won. No. No. No.
Then two candidates, one an independent and the other a Democrat, challenged that idea in forum after forum. At the National Congress of American Indians in June, for example, Bill Walker and Byron Mallott already sounded like they were on the same page when it came to Alaska Native issues. This was expected from Mallott, a member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, and a clan leader of the Kwaashk’i Kwáan of the Raven people. But Walker was right there too, issue after issue, showing how to open the door to a new century.
Alaska should be the model for Indian Country and state relations. Alaska Natives are nearly 20 percent of the population and growing faster than the general population. And, like so many other states, Native presence, culture, and economic acts are intertwined with Alaska’s success. This state will never be more than an oil and gas colony unless it gets right with Alaska Natives.
The election is over. Promises are made. And now it’s time to see that model engaged. A transition team — one that includes Native leadership — is already moving forward.
Last August Gov.-elect Walker told me that it would take him about “fifteen minutes” for Alaska to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. This alone is huge. The Alaska Native medical system is remarkable now, but imagine what can be done with additional money. Imagine what can be done with a better partner from the state. A partnership that should create new jobs and improve health care delivery. As Walker himself said, “It helps between 10,000 and 40,000 Alaskans. And it creates 4,000 new medical jobs in our state and brings down the cost of health care. Why would we not do that?”
Why not, indeed?
But “why not?” is worth asking about on so many issues of contention between the state and Alaska Natives.
Why not rethink subsistence management? What would happen if Native communities managed species (creating jobs) along the lines of the co-management in the Pacific Northwest. This is better for The People — and the natural world.
Or what about a state that funds, supports and works with tribal governments? The federal government recognizes villages as tribes but the state has essentially dismissed that sector as a “not really.” But there are huge opportunities to improve lives by reversing the policy course. Especially when it comes to creating better mechanisms to treat violence against women or even smarter approaches to community justice. Indeed, that’s been a repeated suggestion from a wide variety of experts. But one that’s been rejected consistently by the state.
It’s historic that an Alaska Native man is the state’s Lieutenant Governor but that really misses the point.
That narrative misses because of the way the fusion candidacy happened, Mallott is no ordinary running mate. He has the potential to elevate the office and be involved in decisions that impact all Alaskans.
And I should mention, because I care about voting and voting rights, Mallott will also be the chief elections officer. That’s really great because this election was as much about the organization and the success of Alaska Native voters who found new paths to the ballot box.
So here is an image to think about in Alaska: This is the beginning of a new partnership, Alaska Natives with a voice in the management and future of the state. In the state Capitol, in elections to come, and in policy decisions now.
Welcome to the 21st century, Alaska. Indian Country is watching and excited to see what can be.
Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.Share on Facebook