Alaska Native in the Legislature: What Our Peoples Need to Know

By Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie

This spring, I accepted a policy fellowship with First Alaskans Institute that placed me in the office of a state Senator, working on Native-positive legislation in the Alaska State Legislature.

When this opportunity arose, I knew I had to take advantage of it. I packed up my belongings, sublet my apartment, and in January, moved my life to Juneau, to learn first-hand about our state legislative process and to serve our peoples in a fresh way.

I left Juneau at the end of April and it’s taken me over a month to process this valuable experience, especially as it relates to our Native communities. I could spend the rest of the year detailing what I experienced in those 90 days, but these are the three priority lessons important for Native policy makers, advocates, activists, and community members to know.

Numbers vs. acreage

Alaska Natives are fighting a battle of numbers in the Legislature.

There are two conceptual measurements for Native peoples in the state: population versus acreage.

For many Native peoples, we see the span of our communities through the vastness of our homelands; our villages are all over this state. Alaska is Native land; how can it not be?

For those charged with crafting the laws of the land, it’s a different story. Approximately 80% of the state population is non-Native, and if there is a hard and fast rule in the Legislature, it’s that the majority rules.

However, it doesn’t end there; that 20% is then divided and spread into districts across the state. It is those districts that our Native peoples – our numbers, and our populations – are divided.

There are Native people in every district in this state, but not enough for many to feel like Natives are anything other than a minor percentage of their constituency. And lawmakers are not going to pass Native-positive legislation if they don’t feel like it is benefitting and serving the majority of their constituents. A game of numbers and the majority rules.

Yes, there are a couple of Senators (Olson—District S, Hoffman – District T) who are Alaska Native, representing largely Native constituencies. (Also, both House Representatives in Senate T are also Native). There are 4 Native legislators in these districts with largely Native constituencies. There are 56 other legislators, only one Alaska Native legislator in that number serving an urban district.

Lawmakers are fighting for funds for their communities, now more than ever. Over the course of the session, it’s not difficult to begin to sense that some lawmakers may perceive rural Alaska as being a vacuum, using valuable resources “that could go to” other parts of the state. However, it is the resources found in rural Alaska that are funding the urban areas. Both Native Senators are on the Senate Finance Committee; the phrase that they’re “keeping the lights on” in rural Alaska is entirely true.

Siloed: Native and non-Native Alaskas

Many Native and non-Native people are living in parallel Alaskas. Not necessarily in our towns, which can be quite diverse, but in our institutions, organizations and systems, which help guide our paradigms and the view of our state.

When I think of Alaska, I think of the regions I’ve visited and the people I know there; I think of the Iñupiaq in the North and how they’re similar or different then those in the Northwest, or how the histories and peoples of both regions are different or similar to the area around the Nome area, where 3 cultures converge.

I think about the similarities and differences between the North Slope and the Bethel area, those I know from there and the conversations we’ve had about our respective regions. I think of everything I know about growing up in the Valley and the Native community in Anchorage or the vibrancy of Southeast cultures and communities, or the Interior and other places I’ve been.

When I think of Alaska, I see all the institutions in my mind’s eye; I see the village associations and the tribal governments, the Alaska Native Corporations and can likely name all the statewide Native entities. As Native professionals, we all soon become aware of nearly every council, board, nonprofit and initiative to promote and advance Native peoples, and furthermore, so many of us have mapped in our minds an Alaska based on who we know living where, the hometowns of the people we’ve met, and every conversation we’ve had with those from other regions about what their communities are like, the challenges there, and the histories that have led to the continuation of so many social ills; we know where those come from.

Everything is interrelated, all is connected, and we know so many of the economic, social, cultural, political causes and effects and the factors for why, for better or for worse, our communities and peoples are the way we are.

Legislators are charged with representing their individual districts. And yes, legislators are going to know their own district quite well. However, a legislator from Kodiak for example, has no responsibility whatsoever to learn about issues in Kotzebue; while it may be prudent, there is no obligation. But one person understanding one district of Alaska does not translate to 59 others understanding that same part, and lawmakers are called to create policy that affects Alaskans statewide, including legislation impacting our indigenous peoples.

Our worlds as Native peoples are so wide and deep and vast and our worlds are connected to more organizations and economic engines than many non-Natives will ever know. Now imagine not knowing most of above and voting on and creating policy that will affect all Alaskans statewide, including Alaska Natives. It is an entirely chilling thought.

Reading between the lines: A case study

One of the biggest projects I worked on was the Indigenous Peoples Day legislation. The bill died.

When my office introduced the bill on the Senate side at the very beginning of session, it was sent to Senate State Affairs, where it never received a hearing.

After the bill was passed out of the House (with a surprise amendment adding a Katie John Day in May) and the House bill was sent to Senate State Affairs, it also never received a hearing

I know this session was “all about the budget,” but it is not the role of Senate State Affairs to necessarily confer regarding fiscal policy. Bills they did hear and passed included a bill to honor salmon and change the name of a shooting range in honor of two (non-Native) Alaskans.

Katie John legislation has also been introduced every year since she passed to honor her, but every year, it dies in committee. The Chairman for Senate State Affair’s office even received multiple calls from the public opposing a Katie John day, because subsistence is still that controversial.

The irony is that Senate State Affairs passed a bill honoring the very resource Katie John fought to protect, for her people. We can pass a bill honoring other Alaskans, but we can’t pass a bill honoring her.

I understand the spiritual importance of salmon to Alaska; but I can’t help but wonder if this was an act that honored the resources of Alaska above our people. And the passage of a bill honoring two non-Native Alaskans out of this same committee leads me to wonder how that’s easier than honoring our indigenous ones.

I had a discussion regarding Indigenous Peoples Day legislation with another young Alaska Native professional also with a history of working on rural issues. With great respect for this stellar dynamo, the discussion was akin to, “Why invest energy into this legislation, we should work on meatier, hard-hitting issues, like rural energy.”

There is no debating that absolutely, our communities need to be working on sustainable, affordable solutions regarding rural energy and so many other issues. But we need to ask ourselves: why did this Native-positive bill, symbolic in nature, get sent to Senate State Affairs to sit for 90+ days, never to get a hearing?

If Indigenous Peoples Day was indeed a “fluff bill,” then why was it still so difficult to get it passed?

There are only two pieces of heresay I am choosing to write in this article. The value is shedding light on informal practices, attitudes and norms, so that our people know that we’re working with:

1.) I have in my mind the words of a veteran non-Native staffer who had nothing to gain by telling me this except how he valued equity, “The reason legislators knock down the small wins is so the Native community doesn’t grow stronger for when something more complex comes along.” 2.) Another office’s veteran non-Native staffers also told me legislators were quick sideline Native legislation because they didn’t want to hear, “Drumming in the halls.” Whether either of these specific examples are true or not, staffers quietly regard attitudes such as this towards Alaska Natives as being true. Practicing building coalitions and gaining community involvement will always be good experience and exercise in advocacy for our Native communities, so that being involved in State affairs becomes part of our culture now, too.

In 2015, Governor Walker proclaimed an Indigenous Peoples Day, a one-time designation. This legislation was designed to make it an annual event. I think that the Native community believed it would pass as the Native languages bill did.

But people forget how that bill was never supposed to pass, and it very nearly died, until it met enormous pressure in the form of drumming in the legislative halls in the very final hours of session.

Why is Native-positive legislation so difficult to pass?

So What Can Be Done?

Alaska Natives are at risk of being phased out entirely from the legislative decisions that affect us all. While there are Alaska Native legislators, they cannot fight all of our people’s battles for us, as they are tied to the majority or the minority with their own political restrictions as well. 5 Alaska Native legislators out of 45 is not enough to be on every committee that might hear a Native-positive bill.

While we may have some success having a presence in the general public, we are not permeating legislative offices, and in a manner lawmakers respect. We as Alaska Natives are incredibly adept at building relationships with policy makers within our own Native communities, but how many of us have working relationships with the urban ones with strategic positions on committees whose inclinations to hear a bill affect what our lives may or may not look like, or what our people may or may not have?

Without enhanced educational efforts to lawmakers and staffers to correct misinformation and increased involvement in the routine workings of the legislature, our peoples are at increasing risk of being legislatively marginalized to a point of no return. Another way to put it is “losing our own state.”

As Alaska Natives, no matter what people are or aren’t doing in Juneau, our lands will always be our lands. This state will always be our state. However, from a legislative standpoint, it is not.

The issues that Alaska Natives face are systemic and institutionalized in nature. Because of how the legislative process is organized, Alaska Natives need to be focused in how we overcome this hurdle and strategic in building long-term relationships with the legislature, or else continue to see legislation without representation.




2 thoughts on “Alaska Native in the Legislature: What Our Peoples Need to Know

  1. First, your writings are extremely informative. second, you may not be aware that george rogers included a senate divided into cultural and geographic districts in the original alaska state constitution, but Baker v. Carr, the federal one-man-one vote case, forced redistricting according to population only, The Ice Bloc fought over its numerical weight. The tundra times had many news accounts of its work. I think the allegiance of the alaska native senators has shifted, for better or worse, to the native corporations. The vote to raid the pfd is a good example. On your justice article, I have written elsewhere about the longstanding resentment of the troopers and department of law over the formation of the north slope borough, viewed as a breakaway. Years ago, the fellow who later killed two white campers had legal prosecutions before that dismissed for failure to prosecute. so the costs of this indifference, were and are high. keep up the good work. I am very busy right now, but would like to correspond later this summer. I am on facebook.


  2. Cordelia, thank you for sharing your experience! I am sharing your post with my wife, Harriet Drummond, who is the lead house sponsor of the Bill on the House side. I hope she shares with you her Sponsor’s Statement which nicely summarizes the reasons why this is not “fluff” legislation, but highly relevant to the challenges that the legislature and the People of Alaska are currently facing.

    I am guessing that your “bosses” are afraid of getting to “political” in your analysis. The real, clear political analysis of the Native legislators in the this (29th) legislature is that they made a strategic error by joining a coalition with the Republican Majority. I believe they joined the coalition out of convenience or habit. After all, in years past, a representative of an under-represented district would be foolish not to join a majority coalition. This was how they “brought home the bacon”.

    Unfortunately, Cordelia, there was no “bacon” to bring home. And this year, the budget votes were strictly enforced by the majority. That is why Lora Reinbold got kicked out of the coalition. In consequence of the foregoing, the Native/Rural representatives wound up compromising the interests of their constituents and serving the interests of the Right-Wing Conservative leadership. Shame on them. Two exceptions to this are Sam Kito III, a Tlingit from SE and Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, a non-Native representing multiple small towns and villages in the panhandle.

    The binding budget vote resulted in the bizarre actions of Native legislators voting AGAINST budget amendments that would have maintained rural services! During two different votes, Representative Bob Heron (D-Bethel) voted over two dozen times against the best interests of his constituents.

    The Native and rural legislators would have been better off, from a leverage standpoint (CBR vote) and a moral perspective had their joined the minority. If they could not have seen their way clear to do that, they could have formed their own caucus and negotiated with both the IDC and the Majority for specific votes.

    As for a solution: change the Constitution to a Unicameral 100 seat legislature that would both preserve “one-person-one-vote” and increase representation in new districts.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.


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