UAA Photo
Professor Edgar Blatchford teaching Alaska Native studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage

Alaska Senate Candidate Raises Questions About Native Corporate Power

Mark Trahant

TRAHANT REPORTS—Edgar Blatchford is running for the U.S. Senate in Alaska.

He’s a journalism professor, a lawyer, and a former mayor of Seward. He has also been the chairman and chief executive of Chugach Alaska Native Corporation. (We worked together at the University of Alaska Anchorage.) Blatchford has worked for two Republican governors, including a stint as a commerce commissioner. He also owns several newspapers, including the Tundra Drum and the Seward Phoenix Log. (There are now nine Native candidates running for Congress; Blatchford for the Senate, and eight for the House.) He is running as a Democrat.

“Hi Mark,” he told me by e-mail recently. “I could win this election. I just need the Native/rural vote.”

Mark Trahant

This is where the story gets interesting.

Blatchford is sharply critical of how Native regional corporations have evolved since the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In his e-mail he wrote, answering my question, “Yes, I believe the corporations are unnerved … My guess is that the regional corporations are going to back [Sen.] Lisa Murkowski to the fullest extent.”

Blatchford pointed to a piece he wrote for the Alaska Dispatch News.

“While many apologists staunchly proclaim the regional corporations are overwhelmingly successful in almost all aspects, I take exception on matters of governance and shareholder equality,” he said. “To create equality among shareholders, it must be recognized the ANCSA experiment is not over.”

A solution might require a revolution, he said, “similar to the social and political upheaval in the 1960s where subsistence fisherman, hunters, and gathers came together to fight for a just, equitable land settlement.”

Blatchford said the first step is opening up corporation reform to “new Natives,” or those born after 1971 to give them the same rights as original shareholders.

Not all corporations treat those born after 1971 the same way, but in some respects “new Natives,” as Blatchford puts it, are generation of a tens of thousands of people who were disenrolled before they were born.

Senate candidate Blatchford says ANCSA is a living experiment. “It can be amended by Congress which has happened many times since 1971.”

This is a debate that’s been waiting to happen. Regional Native corporations sometimes have very different priorities than the villages, tribes, or all their stakeholders. The debate about developing coal near the village of Tyonek is an example of that. (Previous: The politics of leaving coal buried in the ground.)

There are no shortage of candidates running for the U.S. Senate in Alaska. Murkowski is being challenged in the Republican primary by Dan Sullivan, the former mayor Anchorage. Remember she lost her primary six years ago only to win re-election as a write-in candidate aided by a combination of the Native vote and significant spending by regional Native corporations. There is also an independent candidate in the race, Margaret Stock. (It’s not so far-fetched to run as an independent. Alaska’s governor won that way.) But a three, or even four, way race could be fascinating come November.

In some ways a Blatchford candidacy is a Native-version of the Bernie Sanders message. Except that where Blatchford is warning about corporate power, he specifically means Native corporate power. It will be interesting to see if that’s a message that will connect with Alaska voters.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On @TrahantReports" target="_blank">Twitter @TrahantReports.

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