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The Great North

The Power of the Native Vote Is Reshaping Alaska Politics

After decades of being shut out at the ballot box, the state’s tribal populations now wield significant influence as a voting bloc.

Darlene Heckler, an Inupiaq Native American, greets motorists while supporting U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski for reelection in Anchorage, Alaska.
John Moore/Getty Images
Darlene Heckler, an Inupiaq Native American, greets motorists while supporting U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski for reelection in Anchorage, Alaska.

There was a time in the recent past when, despite having lived on this land for 10,000 years, Alaska Natives did not have the right to vote. After the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, the Alaska Territorial Legislature passed a bill in 1925 that required voters to speak and read English, thus excluding many Alaska Natives from the franchise. Even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated literacy tests, Alaska Natives still faced significant barriers that diminished the power of their vote.

“There’s a lot of generational trauma here, and colonization is violent. And so for a lot of our people, we did not have a lot of self-worth identifying as Native people. So when you ask them to vote, some of them are probably surprised that they should matter,” said Michelle Sparck, the director of strategic initiatives at Get Out the Native Vote and a Cup’ik from the Qissunamiut tribe of Chevak, Alaska. “We’re trying to get over that disbelief that their vote matters.”

Alaska has one of the smallest populations of any state—in terms of raw numbers, it is home to slightly more people than Washington, D.C.—but its residents are spread out over a geographic area larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. Alaska Natives comprise much of the state’s significant rural population, fishing and hunting on the same land and waters their ancestors did thousands of years ago. Roughly 15 percent of the state’s population is Alaska Native, according to census data. But Sparck puts that figure at closer to 22 or 23 percent when you include the percentage of people who are of two or more races. It is difficult to count American Indian and Alaska Native populations because so many are of mixed racial heritage; this is in large part due to the legacy of colonization.

Sparck took the helm of Get Out the Native Vote in March, and has been principally focused on voter education—particularly with regard to the state’s new ranked-choice voting system—and advocacy on behalf of Alaska Natives who may lack easy access to polling sites and who face language barriers.

Get Out the Native Vote, which is nonpartisan and affiliated with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, has been utilizing more virtual strategies to connect with Native voters, Sparck said, such as texting and social media platforms; Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok all figure into the mix. But there are areas in the state where broadband access is patchy, and where even setting up a polling site can be difficult. “It’s not as simple as waking up on Election Day and getting in line at the polling place. Sometimes there’s no polling place, and maybe they don’t find out until that day. What we’re finding at Get Out the Native Vote is that it literally takes a village to make elections happen,” Sparck said.

While voter turnout overall increased in the August special election and general election primary from the June special election primary, rural turnout held steady or decreased in some precincts, according to Get Out the Native Vote data. Turnout in June and August hovered at around 30 percent, which is the highest turnout there has been for a primary since 2014; although there was a significant percentage of rejected ballots after the June special primary, that percentage decreased dramatically by the time August rolled around.

Tiffany Montemayor, the public relations manager for the Alaska Division of Elections, noted to me that many locations in the state are inaccessible by road, and difficult weather can prevent a plane carrying ballots from landing. But for regions without easy internet access, both the division and voters are even more reliant on the postal system working. “Then we sometimes have trouble finding poll workers in those [rural] locations. And that’s a big one too, because it’s hard for us to open up a polling place if there’s no one there to man that place,” Montemayor said. Both Get Out the Native Vote and the Division of Elections had tables at the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, or AFN, held last weekend, focused on educating Alaska Native voters about the new ranked-choice ballots and their polling sites, and offering resources in multiple languages.

It had been two years since AFN had held its annual convention in person, and the program at the Dena’ina Convention Center in Anchorage at times took on an air of festivity. There was palpable joy in the performances of tribal dancers; in the rapturous welcome of the convention’s keynote speaker and the country’s first Alaska Native member of Congress, Representative Mary Peltola; in the way that nearly every interview I conducted was interrupted as people warmly greeted longtime friends passing by.

The theme of the three-day event was “Celebrating Our Unity,” setting the public policy agenda for hundreds of federally recognized tribes, village and regional corporations, and regional and tribal consortiums falling under the AFN umbrella. AFN delegates also flexed their political muscle, endorsing Senator Lisa Murkowski and Peltola for their respective reelection races, an indication of the important role that Alaska Natives will play in the upcoming November elections.

Several of the Alaska Native voters I spoke with highlighted their importance as a bloc, tying it to their longtime connection to the state. “We might have an outsize role to play because we are a very unique people that has been here for thousands of years. So we understand this land, we understand our waters, we understand our people, and we are in every corner of the state,” said Verner Wilson III, who is Yup’ik Eskimo from Bristol Bay. “We touch everybody’s lives, and I think we will have a good role to play in the election.”

Any voter outreach this year is complicated by Alaska’s shift to ranked-choice voting, which was approved by voters in 2020 and implemented this year. In this system, voters rank their top candidates in order of preference. If one candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, they win. If not, the candidate who has received the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate first have their votes counted for their second choice. This continues until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

Voter education efforts have naturally been centered on explaining how ranked-choice voting works, along with any other questions about where and how voters can cast their ballots. “We’re just being really mindful to let people know you can vote your one, like in the old days, if you want to, and that’s fine. But there is power to ranking,” Sparck said.

Peltola’s special election victory earlier this year is in large part due to this new system. Republican Nick Begich III earned the fewest votes in the first round of voting, so voters who had put him as their first choice had their votes reallocated to their second pick. Over half of Begich voters had put Palin as their second choice, but 29 percent selected Peltola. Once those votes had been divvied up, Peltola defeated Palin by three percentage points.

Barbara Blake, the director of the Alaska Native Policy Center for the First Alaskans Institute and a board member for Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation representing Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian shareholders in southeast Alaska, told me that she had largely heard confusion from voters about how the special general election and primary election were held on the same day, August 16. Fortunately, November 8 will be the last time voters have to worry about electing their representative in the U.S. House for two years.

Sealaska has endorsed Murkowski and Peltola, and Blake highlighted the candidates’ interest in ocean health. “It’s not partisan for us. Both Democrats and Republicans do things to support our Native community. And depends on if they’re pro-Native, and pro-Native right. And they have to have a good relationship with our community,” Blake said.

Murkowski is currently a senator thanks in large part to support from Alaska Natives. After she was defeated in the Republican primary in 2010 by Tea Party favorite Joe Miller, Murkowski successfully launched a write-in campaign that propelled her to reelection—supported by a super PAC primarily funded by several Alaska Native corporations. (Unlike the reservation system that exists in the Lower 48, Alaska Natives’ land is divided by regional corporations.)

Murkowski has been specifically targeted by former President Donald Trump ever since she voted to impeach him in the wake of the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Trump has endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, another Republican candidate looking to unseat Murkowski. Thanks to Alaska’s new open primary system, the top four vote getters make it to the general election ballot, so Murkowski did not have to launch another write-in campaign as she did when she defeated Miller in 2010.

“I see her standing up to the crazy Trumpers, this hard-right movement and the whole cowboy mentality, you know, ‘Make America great,’ like the old days, where they’d just come in and stomp everybody out,” said Ricko DeWilde, who is Athabaskan from Huslia, in the interior of the state. I spoke to DeWilde—who also, incidentally, is one of the stars of the reality TV show Life Below Zero on the National Geographic channel—at his table at the arts and crafts fair during the AFN convention. “I like to see a lady like Lisa Murkowski, that she’s able to stand up against Trump. She’s shown she’s not afraid of him, which is a lot more than I can say for anyone else I see in the Republican Party.”

Joelle Hall, the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, told me that Murkowski’s 2010 write-in campaign was the last time she had seen such energy around voting from the Alaska Native community. “There was this act of self-organization, self-mobilization, and self-actualization to get everybody to write in Murkowski,” Hall said. “What I see now—there’s the diligence and the determination under the surface. But now what we have, what I see at AFN, is the overwhelming pride, and the overwhelming sense of, ‘This is our moment. And we are so stinking proud of [Peltola].’”

Earl Atchak, a Cup’ik vendor from Chevak, harkened back to the enthusiasm around Murkowski’s write-in campaign in an interview at the convention. Atchak recalled making a doll of Murkowski ahead of the 2010 election, dressed in sealskin and holding a campaign sign. “And then she won that election,” Atchak said. He has made another, similar doll of Peltola: “I’m very confident the same thing will happen for Mary Peltola. And I’ve made that doll.”

Peltola’s historic victory in the special election to fill the late Representative Don Young’s seat is made “sweeter” because she is Alaska Native, Atchak said. “I gave her some dry meat that’s soaked in oil yesterday. The food that I eat is the food she eats too,” he said. “She’s one of us. She’s not a reality show actor. She’s like me, and I’ll vote for her. If I had 10,000 votes, I’d give it all to her.”

When Peltola spoke at the AFN convention on Thursday, she was met with cheers, applause, ringing cowbells, and attendees waving photos of her face. When she finished speaking, convention attendees sang an Orthodox and an Inupiaq hymn. As Republican candidate Sarah Palin noted during a candidate forum on Saturday, “This is Mary’s house.” Peltola and Murkowski have also been endorsed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional Association, which represents the 12 land-based regional corporations created after the 1971 law.

But the Peltola campaign is not assuming automatic support from the Alaska Native community. In a brief interview this week, Peltola told me that her campaign was prioritizing shipping mail and lawn signs to rural communities, despite the expense. “They’re bulky, and they can be heavy ... but we are happy to invest that money,” Peltola said about signs, which are particularly potent in communities where word of mouth is the primary method for promoting a campaign. The Peltola campaign sent an oversize mailer to some rural areas, which then could also double as a lawn sign.

“We don’t want to take that for granted. The Alaskan Native community is a diverse community. There are very conservative elements of the community,” Anton McParland, Peltola’s campaign manager, told me.*

McParland also noted the seasonal factors that may spur greater voter engagement in the November general election. “August is the end of fishing season. It’s also the end of berry-picking season. We hope and expect that there will be more rural Alaska and Alaska Native voting in the general election than they did in August.” Sparck had also argued to me that, given how many rural Alaskans were spending August hunting and fishing, “it was impressive to have turnout at all” in the election that month.

The summer fishing season may also factor into votes in another way: Peltola has spoken out against the commercial fisheries that have contributed to a depletion of the local salmon population, and has made the issue a priority while she is in Congress. (Climate change is another key contributor to the plummeting fish population.)

“When we have the summer season of cultural harvesting of salmon wiped out, you’re wiping out a whole way of life,” DeWilde told me, adding that the season was a traditional time for families to bond. “It’s scary to see that way of life threatened. Mary Peltola is the only one I see that’s very heavily outspoken about, ‘let’s address this situation.’ She’s a Native American like me—we try to look way ahead. We don’t just live off the land, we live with the land.”

Whatever the outcome of the election, Alaska Natives will have traversed considerable ground as citizens; a journey that began with decades of exclusion at the ballot box has led to an important influence on Alaskan politics—and potentially the composition of the U.S. Congress. “We’ve seen what the power of the Native vote can do in Alaska,” Blake said. “It makes a significant difference in voter turnout and who’s going to be elected to office when our Native community is united.”

* This article originally misspelled McParland’s surname.