Remote Alaskan Native Communities Strive to Matter in Elections After Redistricting
Alaskan Natives are a blue-state people living in a red-state world.
Redistricting has pitted an incumbent Democratic state senator, a Native Alaskan known for advocating on behalf of rural residents, against a Republican rival, an incumbent who has longstanding urban ties and a huge constituency.
“As part of the last census, Alaska got redistricted and lots of rural communities were shuffled around,” said Richard Peterson (Tlingit/Tsimshian), tribal president and economic development director of Kasaan, in a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network. “Our district got lumped in with Ketchikan and Sitka, and now our longtime AK Native senator has to run against an urban colleague who is not Native. Current State Senator Albert Kookesh, who has a long record of fighting for rural communities, is now in a David-versus-Goliath contest as he takes on a known state senator with more constituents from larger communities.”
Kookesh is from the Tlingit Nation, Eagle Tribe, Teikweidí (Brown Bear) Clan, child of L'eeneidí (Dog Salmon) Clan, according to his biography on the Sealaska site. He serves on the board of the quasi-public agency.
He is running in the newly created District Q, which represents Sitka, Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island, Angoon, Haines and other municipalities, according to the radio station KCAW out of southeastern Alaska. Kookesh’s opponent is Bert Stedman, a Republican from Sitka, who, like Kookesh, is a lifelong resident of Alaska. Stedman is a former commercial fisherman (so, too, is Kookesh) who has served in the Alaska State Senate since 2003 (Kookesh has served in the state legislature for 16 years) on committees ranging from finance to energy to transportation—an area he has in common with Kookesh who is a proponent of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Both candidates are energy aware and advocate lowering the cost of energy and both support increases in funding for education.
With the largest area—nearly 600,000 square miles—plus a longer coastline than all other U.S. states combined and the largest (17 million acres) national forest in America, Alaska is also the least densely populated of the 50 states. Among its occupants are numerous groups of Indigenous Peoples who have inhabited the land for thousands of years. Alaskan native cultures range from the Athabascan to the Tsimshian, each with their own traditions, languages and politics. The Republicans who predominate in the so-called mainstream population are pitted, passionately, against the mostly Democratic Natives.
Though local politics are what occupy most of the small, remote communities that make up rural Native Alaska, some factors have influenced what will happen to their vote. Typical among those communities is Peterson’s territory, the Organized Village of Kasaan at the lower end of Prince of Wales Island, where 20 percent of the residents can trace a tribal heritage. Peterson believes that President Barack Obama will be re-elected and that tribal-federal government cooperation will continue.
“I respect everybody’s right to vote for whomever they like for whatever reasons, but the thing is, I think right now we’re turning things around and are in better shape that we were four years ago,” he said.
His village and others like it have changed much since he first took office in 1997. For one thing, relations between the small communities and various government agencies have improved greatly. And Peterson would like to see that continue.
“Back then, tribal government here was almost nonexistent, with one part-time employee and an annual budget of $13,000,” Peterson said. “Today we have seven members on a tribal council, 30 employees, and a yearly budget of between three and four million dollars.”
Despite disparities in opinion, once consensus is achieved on issues that have an impact on the predominantly Haida community, the council closes ranks behind majority rule.
“Even when we debate things, we support the ultimate decision, and in Indian Country that’s pretty rare,” Peterson said. “I’m not going to paint a picture that things are always rosy, that we always get along and are best friends, but when we sit down at the table and hash things out, we all support the decisions that are made.”
Peterson described his community as once dying on the vine, but now, thanks to the council’s ability to set politics aside, it’s a village that continues to grow.
“We supported economic development, and when you bring in your own money, you can be sustainable, self-determined and self-sufficient,” he said. “We’re the little tribe that could—and when we kept getting told ‘no’, we found other ways to get to ‘yes.’ ”
The progress being made is not the work of one man but a result of the council’s unanimity, he said.
“If it was just me alone, we’d still be spinning our wheels,” Peterson said. “I’ve watched a lot of people far smarter than me get involved and try to help their tribes, but if they didn’t have council support, they might as well go jump in the lake.”
The political partnerships are not only local but also regional among the four tribes on the island, as well as with the federal government.
“Twenty years ago when I got involved, the feds were the enemy—the Forest Service was persona non-grata and the BIA maybe even worse,” Peterson said. “Years ago I about threw Forest Service personnel out of the building. Now we work collaboratively. Government-to-government means you need to work together. Instead of that ‘hey, you owe us’ attitude, we’ve found opportunities to join forces and we’ve started getting a whole lot of positive response as a result.”
“Things are not just happening, rather, people are making things happen,” wrote Guujaaw, Haida Nation president, in that Nation’s newsletter recently. “We lost our influence for 100 years, but this is no longer so.”