So goes Alaska, goes Indian country? This is an old political expression – one that I just made up. But it’s a way to think about the 2014 election landscape with Native leader Byron Mallott on the ballot as a Democratic Party candidate for governor.
Two things makes Mallott’s candidacy important. First, he has a shot. And second, he will be at the top of the ticket, the most important race in the state of Alaska. That means he sets the tone for other candidates running for office across this huge state. And, for Indian country, it means there is one campaign with the potential to generate excitement nationally. This promotes a cycle of success: The more media stories are generated about a Native candidate, the more interest in this campaign – and the idea of voting – and that begs the possibility of higher turnout across Indian country.
Mallott’s biography is a compelling Alaska story. He’s from Yakutat, in Southeast Alaska, and is a member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe. He is also the clan leader of the Kwaashk’i Kwáan of the Raven people. He has a long resume that includes jobs in state government, Native corporations, a board member for Alaska Air Group, mayor of two towns including Juneau, and has served every Alaska governor in some sort of capacity since statehood in 1959. He was also board chair and CEO of Sealaska Corporation.
At the Alaska Federation of Natives convention last week in Fairbanks, Mallott talked about the legacy from the “giants” who have come before, those leaders whose values influenced his parents and grandparents. “The values, the sense of connection to a place, that makes us who we are. We say the Native community with a powerful sense of certainty that we know who we are,” he said. “I am so very proud to be an Alaska Native. To know that I am a first Alaskan. But I also know I am an Alaskan first. That it was this place. This extraordinary land. This place that is really another country, that has the beauty, the resource wealth, that in any other place would make us a sovereign nation. Yet we are proud to be a state in the union of the United States.”
“We are also a state, a country, a nation, with a very small population. Three-quarters of a million people is the size of a medium-sized city in another part of our nation,” Mallott said. “Yet we inhabit the largest land mass in our nation. It is for Alaska’s Native peoples a land mass that pulses and reverberates with our history and our traditions and our ties to land. And our profound realization that this is from where we come, where we will always be, and when time might end, we will still be in this incredibly beautiful place, the cradle of our ancestors.”
As I said, this will be a race to watch; and the state to watch in 2014.
In addition to the formal Mallott campaign, there will be a variety of efforts, including possible legal challenges, designed to increase the velocity of Alaska Native voting. Alaska has the highest percentage of Native people in any state, about one in four, yet you would not know that by looking at most of the state’s institutions, especially elective office.
Until the Supreme Court limited the Voting Rights Act, Alaska was one of the states where a preclearance by the U.S. Justice Department was required before election rules could be changed. Indeed, there is a long history of the state going out of its way to limit Native voting.
But there is also a new narrative, one that occurred during the election of Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She had lost her Republican primary, but was able to return to office because of the Alaska Native vote. The storyline is that the Native vote matters.
It’s that narrative of winning that needs to take hold again – and expand. The potential of Alaska Natives as a political force is as great as Alaska’s landscape. Then, that call for a stronger say in political affairs is true in Indian country too. So goes Alaska, goes Indian country.
Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. Comment on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity.