Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska


On April 26, 2001, the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a meeting in Anchorage. The meeting was a briefing on discrimination faced by Alaska Natives in the state. Albert Kookesh, co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives and an elected member of the state legislature, expressed the federation’s concern about the rise in racial tensions it observed and alleged a pattern of discrimination against Alaska Natives. He described a January 2001 incident where three white teenagers driving around Anchorage shot frozen paintballs at Alaska Natives. The incident, he said, was another indication of racial intolerance toward Alaska’s first people.

While the paintball incident spurred the Advisory Committee’s request for Commission involvement, it was not the prime motivation for the Committee’s interest in the concerns of Alaska Natives and other minorities in the state, and it was not the first time the issue of racial tensions had been brought to the attention of the Committee. At their meeting of May 20, 1999, the members of the Advisory Committee discussed their perceptions about a seeming rise in racial tensions throughout the state. Members believed the issue should be brought to the attention of officials in state government, and the Advisory Committee approved a letter to the governor requesting that he convene a statewide conference on race. In the letter, the Advisory Committee expressed its belief “that the State of Alaska would benefit from a formalized dialogue on race under the auspices of the Office of the Governor.” [1] On June 14, 1999, the Commission’s Western Regional Office received a telephone call from the governor’s office requesting information on the President’s Commission on Race. A contact at the White House Office on the Initiative for One America, the successor agency for the President’s Commission on Race, was provided to the office of the governor.[2]

By the following spring, there was no indication of progress on the Advisory Committee’s recommendation. At its meeting of May 18, 2000, the Advisory Committee agreed to send a follow-up letter, including copies of the May 28 and June 14, 1999, letters, to the governor’s office reiterating the need for a statewide conference on race.[3] In a letter dated June 26, 2000, David Ramseur, chief of staff, office of the governor, responded:

The Governor is heartened and most supportive of President Clinton’s initiatives to bring Americans together, regardless of race. He applauds the work of the President’s Commission on Race. In Alaska, Governor Knowles has undertaken many initiatives to bring Alaskans together.

He has launched one of the boldest steps in Alaska’s history to improve the status of All Alaskans by working closely with Alaska Native tribes. In an historic effort, the Governor is working with tribes on a government-to-government basis to better improve the delivery of services to all Alaskans, with a special focus on Native Alaskans, many of who live in small, remote villages and are often without the modern conveniences or economic opportunities many Americans take for granted. Nearly 100 tribal representatives and state and federal officials recently participated in a successful two-day conference on this initiative.

In fulfilling a campaign promise, Governor Knowles re-energized the state Office of Equal Employment Opportunity by moving it from a state agency into the Office of the Governor and beefing up its staffing and responsibilities. The Office counts many successes in increasing minority hires in state government. Its director, Thelma Buchholdt, is a member of your Alaska Advisory Committee.

Governor Knowles has directed his regional offices to initiate regular contact with minority groups in Alaska’s largest communities, Anchorage and Fairbanks. The diversity of groups involved includes Koreans, Tongans, African-Americans, and Hispanics.

Governor Knowles has appointed many minority Alaskans to top positions in state government, from the judicial and executive branches to prominent state boards and commissions.

The Governor is working hard to bring Alaskans of diverse races together by trying to solve the subsistence issue, in which Native and rural Alaskans depend on fish and game for their sustenance. Despite legislative efforts to deny a subsistence priority to rural Alaskans, the Governor has brought Alaska closer than ever to a permanent solution to this dilemma.

As a result of these initiatives, and many others undertaken at other levels of government and by private Alaskans and organizations, we feel a statewide conference on race is unnecessary at this time. We look forward to working with your office, the Commission and the Alaska Advisory Committee to improve relations between Alaskans of all races.[4]

Despite the above response, the Advisory Committee still believed the state would benefit from a dialogue on race sponsored by the office of the governor. It reiterated this stance at its meeting of September 21, 2000, and supported calls for action to combat racism by the Alaska Federation of Natives and other organizations and individuals. Then, in January 2001, the paintball incident occurred and the greater community appeared shocked by the event. The governor formulated a multipronged action plan that included the creation of a Commission on Tolerance and appointment of commissioners to conduct a study and issue a report. The mayor of Anchorage, using his “Kitchen Cabinet” of individuals from the community who advise the mayor on issues affecting local government, convened citywide workshops and mini-hearings to allow citizens an opportunity to express their thoughts and make recommendations to the municipality. The Advisory Committee is hopeful that the dialogue surrounding the paintball incident will continue and generate action on recommendations.

At its meeting of April 26, 2001, the Advisory Committee heard the presentation from the Alaska Federation of Natives and considered a course of action. It voted unanimously to conduct a series of forums to collect information on discrimination in education, employment, and in the administration of justice faced by Alaska Natives in the state. The first community forum was held August 23–24, 2001, and a second one-day forum was held October 25, 2001, in conjunction with the annual conference of the Alaska Federation of Natives to allow for the participation of Alaska Natives from villages and rural areas of the state who may not have been able to participate in August. Both forums were held in Anchorage. Perhaps the overriding concern that emerged was the sense of frustration on the part of Alaska Natives and other minorities who said that the problem of discrimination has been studied and restudied; and findings and recommendations have been shared and released in report after report and seemingly forgotten. The impact of the urban/rural divide on the provision of governmental funding and services, allegations of unequal protection by law enforcement, lack of employment opportunities, and disparities in educational achievement were prevailing complaints heard by the Advisory Committee and Commissioners in attendance.

The Advisory Committee is thankful for the cooperation it received from the office of the governor, cabinet-level officials, legislative leaders, the mayor of Anchorage, law enforcement, federal, state, and local agencies, various community-based organizations, and private citizens. The Advisory Committee is hopeful that the dialogue spurred by the paintball incident results in ongoing concern and constructive action.

[1] Gilbert F. Gutierrez, chairperson, Alaska Advisory Committee, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, letter to Tony Knowles, governor, State of Alaska, May 28, 1999.

[2] Thomas V. Pilla, Western Regional Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, letter to Jesse Kiehl, Office of the Governor, State of Alaska, June 14, 1999.

[3] Thomas V. Pilla, Western Regional Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, letter to Nina Hartwig, Office of the Governor, State of Alaska, May 24, 2000.

[4] David Ramseur, deputy chief of staff, Office of the Governor, State of Alaska, letter to Thomas Pilla, Western Regional Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, June 26, 2000.