Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska
An Overview of Alaska’s Problems and Promises
Having been born a Native, raised in my village and having lived my life in Alaska, I can say with conviction that there has not been a worse moment in Alaska’s recent history for Alaska’s Native peoples than now. In spite of all the gains Natives have made for themselves in virtually every area of public and private endeavor, the result is a society in Alaska that only dimly comprehends their existence and seems more and more unwilling to accept, let alone celebrate, the Native place in Alaska.
The state of Alaska’s motto, North to the Future, is a promise and “a reminder that beyond the horizon of urban clutter, there is a Great land beneath [the state’s] flag that can provide a new tomorrow for this century’s huddled masses yearning to be free.” This freedom has come at the expense of the state’s Native people; for, in their zeal to exploit the state’s resources, masses of newcomers have consistently failed to recognize and respect the rights of Native Alaskans.
Years of external influence on the state have resulted in what many view as outright discrimination against and marginalization of Alaska Natives. Traditionally, only those who have been directly affected by inequity have had any awareness of it, but the publicity of recent hate-influenced events has made the recognition of bias inescapable. In January 2001, three teenagers combed the streets of Anchorage looking for targets for a vicious game of tag. Their weapon of choice: paintball guns. Their victims: unarmed Natives. To compound matters, one Native Alaskan victim of the attacks stopped a passing police car to report being shot and was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, and served 10 days in jail. The perpetrators videotaped their criminal escapades, which attracted national media attention and spurred outrage across the country. This event, while startling to those in the “lower 48,” came as no surprise to the Native Alaskans for whom such hostility is part of everyday life. According to one Native elder:
Those Alaska Natives that were assaulted represent a long history of violations of Alaska Native indigenous people who have experienced these things since the coming of the Russians. It continues to take away our indigenous fundamental rights, lands, resources, and our way of life.
The events on that cold January night were symptomatic of a larger crisis and have served as a catalyst for the evolving dialogue about race relations in Alaska. The discussions that have occurred since have addressed issues that go beyond the specific incident, to include what many describe as institutional racism embedded throughout the state. Anchorage’s mayor, in a commentary published in the Anchorage Daily News, stated:
Without a doubt, Anchorage has become a kaleidoscope of cultures, heritage and ethnic backgrounds. This diversity is cause for celebration and community pride. Unfortunately, at times it also becomes the cause for misunderstanding, prejudice and discrimination. . . . On one hand, the telecast [of the videotape made by the perpetrators] produced the victims of the paintball attack and helped us succeed in perfecting our case against the culprits. It also ignited racial protest and anger that spread well beyond Anchorage. By showing white males specifically targeting Alaska Natives with their paintball gun, the tape provided proof of racism in Anchorage. Even if there had been no paintball attack and subsequent public outcry, the fact is Anchorage faces problems of racism.
The January 2001 paintball incident may have been the first realization among the non-Native community in Alaska that hate crimes occur, but for the Native community, the event was one more in a series of hate-inspired acts. With respect to the paintball incident, the Alaska Federation of Natives stated:
It sent shock waves through non-natives across the state and even gained national media attention. But for the Native community, it was only the latest indication of racial intolerance that permeates modern Alaska and also underlies discriminatory public policies.
The Alaska State Advisory Committee (SAC) to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights organized a formal discussion about improving race relations in Alaska. Beginning August 23, 2001, the SAC hosted a two-day community forum in Anchorage to solicit input from state, local, and federal officials, representatives from advocacy groups and community organizations, as well as Alaska residents. The forum focused on three areas of civil rights concern—education, employment, and the administration of justice—although many others surfaced during the course of testimony. The forum included two panels of experts in each of these areas, one representing the views of advocacy and community organizations and the other representing the views of government officials.
The SAC also obtained input from community leaders and residents in a daylong session in conjunction with the annual Conference of the Alaska Federation of Natives on October 25, 2001. This report summarizes the issues that arose in the two forums and provides recommendations for how real change can be instituted in the state of Alaska. While many minority groups in Alaska face discrimination, the purpose of the SAC forums was to highlight the issues of particular importance to Native Alaskans, given their status as the largest minority group in the state. To the extent that information was provided on the status and condition of other groups, such as in educational achievement and employment, it is included in the discussions.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ALASKA
Looking back on the recent history of Alaska, it appears that many of the problems of today are related to the attitude of the non-Native caregivers who came to the state in great numbers to “save” the Native people. . . . Before the newcomers came to Alaska the Native people were not in need of salvation. For many centuries their cultural traditions and their knowledge had provided them with the skills to survive successfully in their own environment. The disintegrations started when the non-Native culture, totally foreign to the natural environment of Alaska, caused great disruption between the land and the Native people.
The histories of Alaska Natives and American Indian groups have many similarities. Theirs are histories marked by conquest, genocide, forced cultural and land loss, and the subsequent evolution of alcohol use, violence, and chronic disease. Alaska’s history of discrimination dates back to long before statehood to an era of Russian occupation and settlement, which began in the 1740s. Russian settlers came to Alaska to establish the seal fur trade and to develop seaside outposts. In the process, the land’s Native peoples, particularly the Aleuts, suffered greatly, as they were forced into enslavement. The tribal lives of Native Alaskans were disrupted for nearly 100 years as the Russians forced them to become loyal subjects and members of their church.
American whalers and traders later followed, and the land was purchased from Russia in 1867 for 2 cents an acre, at a total cost of $7.2 million. After the purchase of Alaska (which is translated from the language of the Aleutian Indians to mean “great land”), the territory was soon forgotten, and it fell into a state of neglect, until the 1890s when a great Gold Rush era ensued. The fervor over the discovery of gold brought many people from the United States to interior Alaska, giving rise to the urban centers of today, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. In the process, however, newcomers to the territory failed to consider the rights of the Native people. Most white settlers had little regard for the Native traditions, including hunting and fishing for a living and governing themselves through ancient tribal systems, and took from the Native Alaskans, providing little or nothing in return.
After the decline of gold production, Alaska again found itself neglected, until World War II when the United States recognized the military potential of the region. Eventually, in 1959, Alaska became the 49th state in the Union.
Figure 1: Timeline of Alaska’s Statehood
“Discovery” of Alaska by Russia
Land purchased from Russia
Alaska organized as a territory
Alaska became the 49th state
The two decades following statehood were characterized by turmoil for Native Alaskans as they witnessed a dramatic shift in livelihood, land ownership, political power, and cultural domination. The traditional frontier and public domain of the land shifted toward multiple ownerships, and in the process many were left struggling to determine their place. According to one historical account: “Once all groups—Native people, developers, and conservationists—had felt, rightly or wrongly, that all of Alaska was open to them. Now limits had been imposed on all.”
A major catalyst for change in land ownership was the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay. In order for oil companies to begin development, the state needed to be able to assure clear title to the land. The resulting dispute over land rights was settled with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. Alaska Natives were given title to 44 million acres of land and were paid $962 million in exchange for the forfeiture of their aboriginal land claims. They benefited from the settlement, emerging with ownership of much of the state’s inhabitable land (rich in resources), with money, and with regional and statewide corporate structures through which they could exercise political and economic power. The settlement created 13 regional, 4 urban, and more than 200 village Native corporations.
Rural Alaska had gained power in the state legislature, but this power was short lived. In the early 1970s, a series of federal and state judicial decisions required that the state legislature be reapportioned based on population, resulting in the loss of significant political power for the rural, mostly Native, areas of the state. Today there are 226 recognized villages that have a unique government-to-government relationship with the United States, but as the following discussion will illustrate, these governments often have recognition in name only and not any true political or legal power.
The state of Alaska is by far the largest in the United States, boasting an area of 586,412 square miles; the state is encompassed by 6,640 miles of coastline (longer than all of the rest of the United States) and nearly 33,900 miles of shoreline, including all of its islands. It is one-fifth the size of the entire lower 48 states and larger than the three largest continental states combined. Its richness in natural resources, including gold, zinc, and oil; abundant wildlife; and vast lands have made the state attractive to outsiders.
The term “Alaska Native” refers to Alaska’s original inhabitants. For the purpose of this discussion, the terms “Alaska Native” and “Native Alaskan” are used interchangeably to denote individuals of indigenous descent and those who identify themselves as either whole or part Native. Alaska “native” (no capitalization) refers to those born in the state who are not descendants of original inhabitants. Alaskans, generally, refers to all inhabitants of the state, whether Native or not.
The many individual Native populations vary greatly, but can be roughly divided into four groups: Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos, who live primarily along the northern and western coasts and to some extent inland; Aleuts, who inhabit the Aleutian Islands; coastal Indians, primarily Tlingits and Haidas; and the Athapascan Indians in the interior portions of the state. Within those broad categories are many cultural and linguistic groups. Native communities range from the populous and heterogeneous in Anchorage, with representatives from every Native Alaskan cultural group, to the small and culturally homogenous communities of rural Alaska.
Alaska’s population has grown considerably over the past decade, from 550,000 in 1990 to nearly 627,000, according to 2000 Census data. Of the state’s inhabitants, 98,000 claim themselves as Alaska Native and another 21,000 at least part Alaska Native. Thus, nearly 19 percent of the state’s population is in some part Native Alaskan, making this the largest minority group in the state. Those who identify themselves as whole or part African American make up another 4.3 percent of the state’s population; whole or part Asian Americans compose 5.2 percent; and Hispanics (of any race) make up 4.1 percent. Minorities make up more than 30 percent of the state’s population.
Table 1: 2000 Population of the State of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage
State of Alaska
Race or Ethnicity*
Native Alaskan/American Indian
Black or African American
Hispanic (of any race)
* Includes individuals who identify themselves as whole or a part of any of these racial/ethnic categories; the totals here add up to more than the total population and more than 100 percent because individuals may report more than one race.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, “Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics, 2000,” May 2001.
More than 40 percent of Alaska’s population lives within the municipality of Anchorage. The city’s total population is approximately 260,000 people—72 percent of whom are nonminorities. Alaska Natives (including those who identify themselves as part Native) make up only 10.4 percent of the city’s population, as compared with the entire state in which they compose nearly twice that. The reverse is true for non-Native minorities: African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics each make up a larger percentage of the Anchorage population than they do in the state as a whole. This suggests that although there are fewer minorities (percentage-wise) residing in Anchorage than the state as a whole, this is where higher concentrations of non-Native minorities live. Conversely, rural communities are largely composed of Native Alaskans. This geographic segregation, as this report will illustrate, has created a multidimensional division within the state—one at the same time based on race, culture, and location.
RACISM IN ALASKA TODAY
Alaska Natives should be accorded respect for maintaining the degree of cultural integrity that we have. Our collective responses to oppression and injustice display resiliency and strength that still flows down to us from our ancestors.
Participants in the SAC forums, both elected officials and members of the public, were quick to acknowledge that racism indeed exists in Alaska, although there was disagreement on the extent of the problem and what the state is doing to remedy it. As the following excerpts from the forums indicate, the pain of racism is very real. In the words of one Alaskan: “It is hard to bring it down into a few words, and it is very hard to talk about racism with no passion when you have lived a lifetime of it. And this is my life experience.”
Another commented on the pervasiveness of the racism:
Apartheid is a very real thing here in Alaska. It runs deep, it’s covert, it’s different than outright killing, but the net effects are the same. You manage to separate a people from their lands and from their resources. You manage to take away the customary rights of people that are very ancient rights.
Others commented on the broader effects of racism on the community:
Discrimination is a learned behavior. Discrimination is still rampant and pervasive throughout Alaska today. Racism began when the exotics came to remove us, Alaska Natives, from our homeland. Along with the discrimination, prejudice, and racism comes the negative issues such as unemployment and lack of success for everyone who attempts to hold on to their Nativeness or spirituality.
Other panelists noted that racism results in the failure to acknowledge distinct cultures, which in turn leads to cultural and social isolation. One state senator noted:
Indifference to a basic fiber of Alaska Native people, indifference to the survival of the communities and culture result in a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness. When communities fall under this gray cloud, there are a multitude of side effects: education deficits, psychological depression, high rates of suicide, substance abuse, violent crimes, and finally incarceration.
Likewise, a community activist noted that outward celebration of Native culture is virtually absent in Alaska. Recounting observations made during a recent visit to Hawaii, she described welcoming remarks expressed in the Native language by the flight attendant to passengers upon arrival. The integration of culture into everyday life left her with a positive impression. She went on to state:
[I]t was wonderful. And I guess it really hit me in such a way that I turned to a friend of mine . . . and I said, you know, it’s really sad but I don’t think we’ll ever see that in our state.
According to the director of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, in Alaska there are two types of racism, one against minorities as a whole, and one against Native Alaskans in particular. He likened the situation for Native Alaskans to that of African Americans living in the South in the 1940s and ’50s. He opined:
There are problems of discrimination against minorities in the state, but I think there are systemic institutional racism problems against Alaska Natives that have occurred for a long time. . . . They’re going to take a long time to deal with. I think that there needs to be political leadership and a political will as well as the resources to deal with those.
Still others noted that the people of Alaska must educate themselves on the destructiveness of intolerance and racism:
[I]t’s our responsibility as people to believe that we are tolerant, that we believe that the individual is another human being in spite of their color or their race or their culture. And education not only in the classroom but in meeting places, in the cafes, in the restaurants, in the bars, even on the street, education is very critical.
Although the SAC heard allegations of individual cases of racism and discrimination, many Alaska residents charged that the state itself has neglected its responsibility in the provision of services and finances for necessary programs. They argued that the state, through ill-conceived policies and unfair distribution of wealth, is culpable for the poor economic, social, and political conditions of its minority residents. Even state officials acknowledged failure on their part. The governor of Alaska stated:
There is no excuse for us not to provide the essential services based on a lack of budget. We do have numerous resources that we can turn to. . . . There is plenty of wealth in this state to address those needs and so the responsibility lies clearly with the political leadership if it’s not done, and if it’s done in a proportionality that is also fair.
In its final report, the Governor’s Commission on Tolerance wrote:
Alaskans describe instances of prejudice and intolerance that prevented them from working, or from accessing critical state services. Tolerance begins at the top. We cannot expect Alaskans to embrace our diversity if our leaders and our public agencies do not. There is no room for intolerance in our public agencies.
Another state lawmaker noted that the politics of funding often get in the way of legislation. She stated: “There’s a lot of discrimination that goes on within the legislature because you can’t get the funding for it, or you can’t get some of the legislation through that would correct some of these inequities.” She added that “the state has a constitutional responsibility to provide the same or equal treatment to all people in Alaska, and we haven’t been doing that.”
The mayor of Anchorage similarly acknowledged the responsibility of elected officials to combat racism and intolerance. He stated:
[A]s long as it remains human nature for people to be uneasy about someone who is different than they are, who has a different religion or a different language or eats different foods or has different customs, we expect there’s going to be barriers to overcome. And that’s why it’s incumbent on those of us who hold leadership positions to help open the doors and create mutual respect and dignity for each other.
A legal advocate said division within the Alaska legislature has often prevented reconciliation of inequities and intolerance. She used state condemnation of the paintball attacks as an example:
Any time action is taken to move toward progress, there is a backlash to that. And we saw an embarrassing situation in our state’s senate this spring wrangling over what kind of discrimination should be okay and what kind of discrimination is quote, unquote unlawful, in the adoption of a very simple resolution condemning the paintball attacks. It was very embarrassing to watch, frankly, allegations of reverse discrimination by Alaska Natives against white people, and that was used as an example to support the term “unlawful.” . . . [T]he discussion shows the lack of sensitivity to these issues by people who are proposing to condemn the paintball attacks.
The chairman of the Alaska Native Justice Center suggested that the state must reflect on its own rules and laws that may be the root cause of discrimination. He stated that if there were a list of culprits, the state of Alaska should be included in that list. He argued:
I think the state needs to take note of its laws and rules. It needs to take stock of what it’s doing and what it intends to do with all its citizens and make some changes. . . . [I]f people in Alaska see the state of Alaska discriminating, [then they will conclude] it’s okay to discriminate.
Similarly, another panelist noted that “there are numerous proposed legislation that unfairly target rural Alaska, which to me equates to Native Alaskans.”
Another area of state neglect is evident in negligence of non-English-speaking communities. Both immigrants to Alaska and rural Native Alaskans face language barriers that compound the difficulties of daily interaction. According to some community leaders, the state of Alaska has been negligent in its response to these residents’ needs. Little, if anything, is being done by state officials to implement programs that will serve language minorities in critical areas of health care, education, employment, law enforcement, and the court system. For example, there are no interpreters for immigrants who are arrested; such persons are often placed in state custody without the ability to communicate. There is also no certification process for interpreters in Alaska.
The paintball attacks brought national attention to the prevalence of racism in Alaska and, to some degree, motivated political action. For victims who have lived with discrimination, the incident holds a promise that their experiences will no longer go unrecognized. One panelist stated:
We’re here because we have had our heads buried in the sand. We didn’t want to hear the facts and we wanted to believe that racism does not exist. Well, the paintball incident brought out what we’ve been saying for years. The public was aware of the racism in the city and the state, and when we tried to voice that, no one wanted to hear it. . . . And the paintball shooting was one of the greatest things that ever happened really in the state because it brought out what other minority groups have been saying and it became a reality.
Perhaps one panelist, a state lawmaker, summed it up best when she reflected on the nexus between individual culpability, as in the case of the paintball incident perpetrators, and state obligation. When injustice is obvious, it is easy to condemn, but Alaskans, and state officials in particular, must rise to the challenge when more subtle injustices threaten the well-being of those who lack the tools to fight back. In her words:
The highly publicized paintball attacks carried out by three young men targeting Alaska Natives this past winter spurred a great deal of discussion, self-reflection, and problem solving. Such inhumane crimes motivated by prejudice are easier to respond to than the day-to-day, year-to-year injustices and discrimination Alaska Natives and other minorities face. It is easier to galvanize public support to get to the bottom of the crime and address such an obvious form of discrimination.
But how have we responded to the lack of economic development in rural Alaska coupled by the constant threat to Alaska Natives’ subsistence way of life? How have we responded to the low employment rates of Alaska Natives in state government? How have we responded to the high unemployment rates for Alaska Natives throughout the state? How have we responded when confronted with the reality of inadequate school facilities in rural Alaska and the low test scores on the high school graduation exams by Alaska Natives? How have we responded to the high alcohol and suicide rates among Alaska Natives? How have we responded to the lack of law enforcement protection in village Alaska? How have all of these issues contributed to high incarceration rates of Alaska Natives and problems in the administration of justice? How have we tried to resolve these issues and halt the disturbing downward spiral into which many Alaska Native individuals and communities have found themselves?
ALASKA’S UNIQUE CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUES
One has to wonder how people can suffer as much as ours and emerge with a desire to preserve and sustain life. Our resolve to preserve the spirit . . . of who we are as a people allows us to flex instead of breaking. This resolve is, of course, strength needed to carry us through a common destiny through the vision of our children.
The state of Alaska, with its diverse population and vast geographic area, faces many unique challenges, several of which have civil rights implications. While the state’s history is a short one, the history of its indigenous people dates back thousands of years, creating a divide between culture, tradition, and “progress,” and resulting in a racially charged environment.
Among the issues that have contributed to the tension between racial and ethnic groups in Alaska are the division between urban and rural needs and how those needs are met; access to natural resources to enable a subsistence living; and local control of resources through self-governance. As will be discussed, the cultural, political, and economic implications of each of these issues have an effect on the livelihood of Native Alaskans, more so than any other group residing in the state, and serve as reminders of the institutional intolerance that plagues Alaska.
The Urban/Rural Divide
Compared with other states, Alaska is so vast in its land base and so relatively small in population that unique issues arise. For example, an urban/rural divide exists, with residents of remote rural villages, who are predominantly Native Alaskans, often receiving inferior state and federal services, if any at all. The geographic isolation is compounded by a lack of infrastructure in rural communities, including adequate road systems. Many rural villages are, in fact, entirely off road and can only be reached by plane, boat, or snowmobile. The resulting divide between on-road and off-road communities can be seen in education, employment, and law enforcement and has a profound effect on their economic, social, and cultural conditions.
The disparities found in rural Alaska necessarily translate to disparities for Native Alaskans since they make up such a large proportion of the state’s rural residents. According to the governor of Alaska, in contrast to the rest of the country where minority populations are often concentrated in inner cities, in Alaska a significant majority of the state’s minorities reside in rural areas. It is in the rural communities that needs go unmet, projects unfunded, and services are not equitably delivered.
The Alaska Federation of Natives has similarly identified the urban/rural divide as one of the most critical influences affecting the socioeconomic and political status of Alaska Natives today. In a briefing paper submitted to the SAC, the federation stated:
The Urban/Rural divide is rooted in the unequal treatment accorded Native villages in terms of education, law enforcement, clean water and sanitation, and the double-digit unemployment in rural communities. It is also reflected in the legislature’s systematic effort to undermine federal protections for hunting and fishing rights of rural Alaskans and its refusal to allow Alaskans to vote on a constitutional amendment on subsistence. It ignores the huge subsidies the urban areas enjoy as a result of the wealth of resources located in rural Alaska.
Although state and local officials who spoke before the SAC highlighted some of the social and economic programs designed to transcend this divide and benefit Native Alaskans, representatives of community groups and the public testified that the state has made no effort to significantly improve the condition of its Native peoples. Allegations were made that the state has, in fact, acted in the interest of the urban majority at the expense of rural Natives. In the words of one panelist:
In light of such wide disparities between the well-being of Natives and the well-being of other Alaskans, one might expect the state of Alaska to be sufficiently concerned to use some of its governmental power and oil wealth to improve the situation; on the contrary. The past decade has seen state policy, controlled by the urban non-Native majority, turn against Natives with a vengeance. Under a banner of fiscal austerity, the state is making political war on the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens defined by race.
Several facts were presented in support of allegations of state neglect: (1) state aid to local governments has been reduced by 60 percent in the past eight years, disabling many Native villages in their governmental operations; (2) the state uses the provision of federal funds as an excuse to reduce its expenditures in villages and fails to develop rural economies that could support local government; and (3) the state minimizes the severity of unemployment in villages by counting only those who actively look for work and not those who have “long since given up” because there is no work available. According to the Alaska Federation of Natives:
The state government, in particular the state legislature, has created an atmosphere of intolerance in the state by their actions, by their decisions on the appropriations process, by their withholding of resources to critical needs in the rural areas, by their lack of funding, where courts have even determined that people’s civil rights have been violated.
One state senator testified that rural residents of Alaska often perceive the government as cold, distant, and uninformed about life at the local level. She stated:
On many levels, the existence of this [urban/rural] divide is a result of indifference, and the consequences of this unresponsiveness, disinterest, and indifference to this divide has indeed resulted in the punishment of all Alaska Natives, including those who reside in urban Alaska.
Furthermore, it is the opinion of many who testified that the state has failed to support solutions or fund programs that could heal the urban/rural divide and promote local empowerment.
The divide in Alaska is both geographical and cultural, and it has implications for education, employment, and law enforcement. According to the governor, the two most important services that the state can deliver are education and public safety. Unfortunately, these are also areas in which there is a widening gap between rural and urban Alaska. Each of these issues will be addressed in the discussions that follow.
Without subsistence, Alaska Native peoples would die spiritually, die emotionally, and eventually die physically. There is no issue more important to achieving racial harmony in this state than protecting the subsistence way of life for rural Alaskans.
Governor Tony Knowles
For 10,000 years, Alaska Native peoples have relied on hunting, fishing, and gathering to feed, clothe, and house themselves. Use of natural resources, such as harvesting fish and wildlife, continues to be an integral part of their existence and the survival of their communities. On another level, subsistence also provides a cultural, spiritual, and social connection, as well as a sense of identity for many rural Alaskans. Despite this, the state’s legislative majority has failed to acknowledge the importance of subsistence and has enacted policies that have had the end effect of forcing Alaska Natives to assimilate, thereby losing their culture and traditional values.
As mentioned above, in settling the land ownership claims of Alaska Natives, the passage of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971 also required the forfeiture of aboriginal land claims, extinguishing hunting and fishing rights. However, at that time Congress also directed the Secretary of the Interior to protect the subsistence needs of Native peoples. This led to the 1980 passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), under which a preference was granted to rural Alaska residents for subsistence uses of wildlife resources. (Note that the language of the act was race neutral, using the term “rural Alaskans” as opposed to “Native Alaskans.”) As long as the state adhered to the subsistence priority, it would be permitted to manage fish and game on all federal lands in Alaska. If the state did not fulfill this obligation, the federal government would assume management of all federal lands. Two years before ANILCA, the state had adopted its own general subsistence preference legislation, but by 1986 to come into compliance with the new law, the state amended its statute to limit the preference to rural residents. The Alaska Supreme Court later ruled that this amendment was in violation of the state constitution and required that access be given to all Alaskans.
The U.S. Court of Appeals, however, ruled contrary to the state supreme court, finding that the state was not in compliance with ANILCA, and ordered a federal takeover of subsistence fisheries in waters in and near Alaska’s federal lands, an area constituting nearly two-thirds of the state. In 1990 federal agencies took over management of game on federal lands and in 1999 took over control of fish in federal waters.
The governor of Alaska in October 2001 decided not to appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some see the acceptance of the appeals court decision as a first step toward gaining statewide acceptance of subsistence, but the debate remains politically and economically charged, further defining the division between urban and rural Alaska. According to subsistence supporters, the issue can be resolved in two ways: by amending the state constitution or asking Congress to preempt state law by granting a rural or Native priority. However, efforts to place an amendment to the state constitution on a ballot have been blocked in the state legislature, even though there is wide public support for such an amendment.
Those opposed to subsistence argue that the allowance of “special” fishing and hunting rights for rural and Native Alaskans amounts to unfair special treatment, ignoring the fact that subsistence is a cultural way of life and a critical form of livelihood. According to an attorney for the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, the perception that the issue of subsistence is just about food stems from the refusal to validate the cultural, spiritual, and religious significance of subsistence to the Alaska Native way of life.
Two legislative panelists who spoke before the SAC presented different views on the subsistence issue, although they were in agreement that a fundamental goal of state lawmakers is providing resources to those who need it, when they need it. According to the president of the state senate, the Alaska Supreme Court did not attack subsistence, but rather stated that it deserves close scrutiny in its application to avoid discrimination. The notion of providing a rural preference was too vague. He added that subsistence is a basic human right, but that only allowing its use for rural residents is discriminatory:
[W]hen you discriminate in the application of that basic human right and you say that a rural resident who has arrived last year from outside and lives in a rural community 500 miles away has a priority over an Eklutna Native who has been surrounded by an urban community who can’t now drive his old pickup to the Denali highway and hunt under the same priority as the person who just got here, there’s a problem with that.
He believes the solution is going to require changes in both federal and state law. But others argue that the right to subsistence extends beyond access to food, to a cultural connection to the land. Often subsistence is described in terms of food because “that is the easiest way to quantify it without really understanding it.”
Alaska Native groups are not only frustrated by the reluctance of all Alaskans to embrace the issue of subsistence, but also the political process by which the measure is being addressed. According to one activist, the issue has festered for years and remained unresolved with Alaska Natives “relegated to the sidelines and unimportant in the political decision making.” The conflict persists “and the stalemate over subsistence has resulted in what is perceived by many in our Native community as a lack of respect as it results in the perception of racial bias.”
Others believe that, beyond fostering racial and cultural misunderstandings, the lack of action in the state legislature to resolve the subsistence issue has fueled Alaska’s urban/rural divide. One community activist stated that the state needs to come together to push for resolution:
If the subsistence issues and the divide between urban and rural Alaska is to be healed, urban residents and businesses need to understand they play a key role. . . . [T]hey can no longer sit on the sidelines and expect Alaska Natives and their organizations to do all the work.
The cries of Native groups and community activists appear to be having an effect. The debate over subsistence prompted the governor of Alaska to call for a Subsistence Leadership Summit in August 2001. The goals of the summit were to protect subsistence, develop a plan to regain state management of Alaska’s fish and game, and reconcile the divide between Alaskans. A spokesperson for the summit, in a letter to the governor, emphasized the importance of subsistence:
Although customs, traditions, and beliefs vary, these Alaskans share ideals of respect for nature, the importance of using resources wisely, and the value and dignity of a way of life in which they use Alaska’s fish and wildlife for a substantial portion of their sustenance. This way of life is recognized as “subsistence.”
Among other findings, the Governor’s Subsistence Leadership Summit found that resolution of the subsistence impasse is critical to bridging the gap between urban and rural Alaska and unifying the management of fish and wildlife resources. The summit produced the following recommendations:
The state legislature should adopt a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a rural subsistence priority for use of fish and game resources. The amendment should be placed on a ballot in 2002.
The state legislature should adopt a law that provides for co-management of fish and game resources that includes participation by Alaska Natives and rural residents. Co-management options include agreements between local entities, Native organizations, and the state and federal governments.
There should be a continuing policy dialogue among Alaskans to address subsistence and resource management issues.
In a statement before the SAC, the governor confirmed that he and his cabinet recognize the importance of subsistence to Alaska’s Native and rural people and have fought for a state constitutional amendment allowing a subsistence priority.
Indigenous Rights and Self-Governance
The issue of indigenous rights raises some difficult and politically challenging questions. As has been demonstrated by the plight of American Indians and Native Hawaiians, the sacrifice of fundamental rights for people whose heritage and culture are tied to historical existence is tantamount to cultural annihilation. The convergence of civil rights in the conventional sense and indigenous people’s rights presents difficult social and legal challenges, as is clearly demonstrated by the subsistence issue, but it also presents a challenge in terms of political power and governance.
According to testimony from the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the right to self-determination for indigenous people is the driving force behind the problems in Alaska. Native Alaskans aspire to control the decision making that directly affects their lives, which will empower them to change factors that account for their dismal social condition. Self-governance is more of an issue for rural communities than urban ones because municipalities have established relationships with the state and their own tax bases. Tribal governments, on the other hand, are a reality in rural Alaska, but there is a lack of understanding of the legal status of tribes among the non-Native population.
The issues of self-governance and local control pose complex questions because they rely on the convergence of state and federal laws, which are not always complementary. It is important to note, however, that a tribe’s status as a sovereign nation depends on the actions of the federal government, independent of any state action. Today there are 226 federally recognized villages in Alaska.
The U.S. Constitution recognizes “Indians” as having enough sovereignty to warrant government-to-government interaction for commerce. Further sovereignty hinges on whether or not a Native community is defined as a tribe. Accordingly, established tribes possess power to choose a form of government, administer justice, determine tribal membership, exclude people from tribal land, and charter business organizations.
So how do Native Alaskans fit into the federal structure as subjects of Alaska state laws? Alaska’s constitution was designed to provide for maximum local self-government with a minimum number of government units. The state constitution provides for flexibility in the existence and structure of local governments, dividing the state into both organized and unorganized boroughs. Local authorities have the option to be within nine governmental structures to perform their functions as cities, boroughs, or municipalities. This flexibility has served most of the state’s urban areas and some rural areas well, but the constitution did not take into account traditional tribal governance, and rural areas were largely ignored as the borough system was implemented.
Moreover, there are limitations to the extent to which tribal governments can exert control. As established upon statehood, the federal government mandates state jurisdiction over criminal and civil violations of the law on Native Alaskan land. Thus, tribal governments do not have the authority to administer their own criminal justice systems. Native Alaskans’ right to sovereignty has suffered a further legal dismantling since the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that an Alaskan village was not part of “Indian country” and, therefore, could not levy taxes to a private firm conducting business on its land. The Court’s decision did not, however, affect the federally recognized status of Alaska tribes. While some basic sovereignty rights of Native Alaskans have slowly eroded, other sovereignty questions remain unsettled, including those involving subsistence, child welfare and other domestic matters, and control over education.
In many rural communities, tribes are the only form of government and the only source of needed services. As such, rural Alaskans often have disdain for the state, which they believe has ignored their needs and interests, and perceive it as “cold, distant, hidden, uninformed about life at the local level.” Rural residents also perceive state funding cutbacks as having an unfair impact on rural Alaska, and some question whether the state has met its constitutional responsibilities. According to the Alaska Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment:
Natives are loyal citizens of the United States. They abide by the federal and state constitutions, pay their taxes, serve on juries, vote in elections, and serve in defense of the nation and the state. As residents of Alaska, Natives are entitled to the same rights and services as other Alaskans, regardless of their special relationship with the federal government.
The president of one Alaska village council who spoke before the SAC summed up the difficulties village governments face:
It’s been very difficult, very, very difficult, because the federal and state governments, of course, are entrenched in the way they govern. There’s no recognition of ours because they don’t know us. We’ve lived here for thousands of years and governed ourselves. And yet . . . we’re recognized by the federal government but subjugated by their laws.
Despite the difficulties cited here, according to some legal scholars, Alaska has been a leader in “trying to coordinate civic harmony” among the Native and non-Native populations. To that end, in 1998 the state established the Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment to assess the delivery of services to rural communities and make recommendations to enhance governance in rural Alaska. The Governance Commission came up with several key findings in support of local governance. Among them are the following:
There are a variety of local and regional institutions in Alaska that govern themselves and provide services, and although there are problems, there are also many successes.
Some rural areas have effectively utilized municipal institutions for local governance.
Cooperation is an important element for providing services and managing resources.
The lack of recognized geographic delineation of tribal government jurisdiction complicates tribes’ ability to fulfill needed government functions.
Empowering local people and delivering services locally are a challenge for all Alaskans, not just governmental entities.
Government works best when it empowers people to take control of their lives.
The commission’s final report led to the drafting of the Millennium Agreement between federally recognized tribes of Alaska and the state. The agreement acknowledges mutual sovereignty between the state and tribes and calls for improved communication between them to resolve conflicts. While the agreement is voluntary in nature and not legally binding, it has at least initiated a forum to promote discussion between local and state governments.
The fact remains that there are communities in Alaska that have prospered through self-governance. These communities should serve as models and be encouraged and empowered to continue self-governance and to share their strategies with other local governments.
Byron I. Mallot, commentary, The Anchorage Daily News, Apr. 23, 1999,
reprinted in Alaska Federation of Natives and the Inuit Circumpolar
Conference, Roundtable on Indigenous Self-Governance, May 10, 1999,
Fairbanks North Star Borough Public Library, FAQAlaska Project,
“Frequently Asked Questions About Alaska,” <http://sled.alaska.edu/akfaq/akgeogr.html>,
quoting Richard Peter, creator of the state motto.
Steve Douglas, “The Alaska Pipeline,” Environmental Science in Action,
March 2000, <http://miavxl.muohio.edu/~kaufmadg/ alaska.html>.
For the purpose of this report, the terms “Alaska Natives” and “Native
Alaskans” are used interchangeably, reflecting the terminology used by the
various speakers and documents cited.
Apnglik Kiraiuaak, Kozee Council of Elders, statement before the Alaska
Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum,
Aug. 24, 2001, transcript, pp. 567–68 (hereafter cited as Aug. 24
George Wuerch, mayor of Anchorage, “Mayor Seeks to Bridge Racial Gap,”
commentary, The Anchorage Daily News, Aug. 26, 2001, p. G2.
Alaska Federation of Natives, “Briefing on Recent Hate Crimes Against
Alaska Natives and Other Acts of Discrimination,” submission to the Alaska
Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Apr. 26, 2001
(hereafter cited as AFN, “Briefing on Recent Hate Crimes”).
See appendix for a list of panelists.
Alaska Natives Commission, Final Report, vol. 1, May 1994, preface by
Robert Alberts, p. iii.
Denise Morris, president, Alaska Native Justice Center, statement before the
Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community
forum, Aug. 23, 2001, transcript, pp. 190–91 (hereafter cited as Aug. 23
Lawrence Lee Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier:
Education in Alaska Amid Rural-Urban Tensions,” n.d., submitted by Shirley
J. Holloway, commissioner, Alaska Department of Education and Early
Development, to the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on
Civil Rights, Aug. 24, 2001 (hereafter cited as Oldaker, “From Blackstone
to America’s Last Frontier”).
Bryan Cooper, Alaska: The Last Frontier (New York: William Morrow
& Co., 1973), p. 23.
Janie Leask and Rick Mystrom, Urban Rural Unity Study, Commonwealth
North, September 2000, p. 4 (hereafter cited as Commonwealth North, Urban
Rural Unity Study).
Steve Douglas, “The Alaska Pipeline,” March 2000,
Commonwealth North, Urban Rural Unity Study, p. 5.
Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Pub. L. No. 92-203, 85 Stat. 688
(codified as amended 43 U.S.C. §§ 1601–1629e (1994)).
Commonwealth North, Urban Rural Unity Study, p. 5.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Public Library, FAQAlaska Project,
“Frequently Asked Questions About Alaska,” <http://sled. alaska.edu/akfaq/akgeogr.html>.
Mary Clay Berry, The Alaska Pipeline: The Politics of Oil and Native Land
Claims (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1975), p. 12.
The Economics Resource Group and the Institute of Social and Economic
Research, University of Alaska at Anchorage, Achieving Alaska Native
Self-Governance, Final Report, Sept. 8, 1998, p. B-3.
U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, “Profiles of General
Demographic Characteristics: 2000 Census of Population and Housing,
Alaska,” May 2001 (hereafter cited as U.S. Census Bureau, “Alaska 2000
U.S. Census Bureau, “Alaska 2000 Census,” table DP-1, p. 1. Note that,
for the first time in 2000, the Census Bureau allowed people to identify
with more than one racial or ethnic category. Thus, reporting and comparing
demographics over time have become more complex.
U.S. Census Bureau, “Alaska 2000 Census,” table DP-1, p. 4.
Alaska Native Justice Center, “Administration of Justice Issues Faced by
Alaska Natives,” paper presented to the Alaska Advisory Committee to the
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 23, 2001, p. 2 (hereafter cited as
ANJC, “Administration of Justice Issues”).
Diane E. Benson, Alaska resident, statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 586.
Gary Charles Patten, Copper River Tlingit, statement, Aug. 23 transcript,
June Degnan, Unalakleet Yup’ik, Alaska resident, statement, Aug. 24
transcript, pp. 564–65.
Georgianne Lincoln, senator, Alaska State Senate, statement, Aug. 23
transcript, p. 181.
Janie Leask, manager of community relations, Alyeska Pipeline Service
Company, statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 88.
David Levy, executive director, Anchorage Equal Rights Commission,
statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 513.
Arthur Lake, president, Association of Village Council Presidents,
statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 112.
Tony Knowles, governor of Alaska, statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 73.
Governor’s Commission on Tolerance, Final Report, Dec. 6, 2001, p.
Lincoln statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 229.
Ibid., p. 226.
George Wuerch, mayor of Anchorage, statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 319.
Jennifer Rudlinger, attorney, Alaska Civil Liberties Union, statement, Aug.
23 transcript, pp. 96–97.
Roy Hundorf, chairman, Alaska Native Justice Center, statement, Aug. 23
transcript, p. 202.
Lincoln statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 220.
Maria Rosas, consultant and retiree from the Alaska Department of
Corrections, statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 41.
Ibid., p. 43.
Reverend William Greene, Eagle River Missionary Baptist Church, statement,
Aug. 23 transcript, p. 102.
Lincoln statement, Aug. 23 transcript, pp. 174–75.
Shirley Tuzroyluke, education information manager, CIRI, statement before
the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,
community forum, Oct. 25, 2001, transcript, p. 100 (hereafter cited as Oct.
Knowles statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 61.
AFN, “Briefing on Recent Hate Crimes,” pp. 16–17.
Bonnie Jo Savland, statewide director, Alaska Native Coalition for
Employment Training, statement, Oct. 25 transcript, p. 131.
Ibid., p. 132.
Julie Kitka, president, Alaska Federation of Natives, statement, Aug. 23
transcript, pp. 27–28.
Lincoln statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 178.
Tony Knowles, governor of Alaska, written submission to the Alaska Advisory
Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 23, 2001 (hereafter
cited as Knowles written submission).
Knowles written submission, p. 3. Governor Knowles attributes the first
statement to Father Michael Oleska, arch-priest of the Russian Orthodox
AFN, “Briefing on Recent Hate Crimes,” p. 15.
Brian Rogers, facilitator, Governor’s Subsistence Leadership Summit,
letter to Tony Knowles, governor of Alaska, Aug. 17, 2001 (hereafter cited
as Rogers, letter to the governor), included in written submission of Janie
Leask, manager of community relations, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, to
the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug.
AFN, “Briefing on Recent Hate Crimes,” p. 16.
Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, 43 U.S.C. § 1636 (1994).
Commonwealth North, Urban Rural Unity Study, p. 7.
McDowell v. Alaska, 785 P.2d 1 (1989).
Commonwealth North, Urban Rural Unity Study, p. 7.
Zaz Hollander and Elizabeth Manning, “Subsistence Rally Cry,” The
Anchorage Daily News, Aug, 22, 2001, p. A1; Mike Chambers, “Two Call
for Needs-Based Subsistence Access System,” The Anchorage Daily News,
Aug. 22, 2001, p. B1.
Rudlinger statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 94.
See Brian Porter, speaker, Alaska State House of Representatives,
statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp. 359–63; Rick Halford, president, Alaska
State Senate, statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp. 359–63.
Halford statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 360.
Ibid., pp. 360–61.
Ibid., p. 363.
Kitka statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 23.
Wuerch statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 315.
Leask statement, Aug. 23 transcript, pp. 86–87.
Ibid., p. 87.
Rogers, letter to the governor.
Knowles written submission.
Kitka statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 21.
Commonwealth North, Urban Rural Unity Study, p. 10.
U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl.
Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier,” p. 7.
Alaska Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment, Final Report to
the Governor, June 1999, p. 24 (hereafter cited as ACRGE, Final
Report to the Governor).
Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier,” p. 6 (citing
Alaska Const. art. 3, § 3).
ACRGE, Final Report to the Governor, p. 24.
Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Gov’t, 522 U.S. 520 (1998).
Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier,” p. 8.
ACRGE, Final Report to the Governor, p. 12.
Ibid., pp. 13–14.
Arthur Lake, president, Association of Village Council Presidents,
statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 136.
Oldaker, “From Blackstone to America’s Last Frontier,” p. 9.
ACRGE, Final Report to the Governor, p. 8.
 Ibid., pp. 10–14.