The history of Alaska Native voting is difficult, but important to know

Nearly the moment colonization began in Alaska, the Alaska Native struggle out of political oppression also began. Even before the Russian “sale” of Alaska to the United States was complete, Native groups in the state were involved in legal action against both Russia and the United States.

When the U.S. Alaska purchase went forward, all those living on Alaskan land were immediately made U.S. citizens – “with the exception of the uncivilized native Tribes” of the land. At the time, the Alaska Native population was around 35,000, while non-Natives (namely Russians) were only in the hundreds – meaning citizenship was granted to less than 3 percent of the population.

For most of United States history, Alaska Native and American Indian people were not considered citizens – and therefore could not vote, much less own land, or determine their own legal affairs. After decades of losing political power in their own land, in the early 1900s Southeast Alaska Tribes were able to earn the right to United States citizenship – and the vote.

But the right to vote came at a high cost.

Native people had to give up cultural ways – including language, dance and foods. They had to sign contracts to this effect, with assurances by five white people that these statements were true.

In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, guaranteeing citizenship rights to all Indigenous people’s on United States territory. This did not, however, guarantee a right to vote.

Only a year later, the Alaska Territorial Legislature fought for a literacy voting law intended to restrict Alaska Native voting. Literacy laws were common devices used by states to limit voting in minority populations, especially prevalent in the south but also popular in states with large Native populations. After hundreds of years of educational disenfranchisement, this very limit was used to determine the ability to have a voice in the governance of the land. The bill was both reactionary to Native people being granted citizenship and to the efforts of Tlingit lawyer William Paul toward Native education and vot­ing rights.

The issue of voter suppression by this act was openly anti-Native. Proponents spoke of and wrote about Natives overcoming the state because they held the “balance of power” in sheer numbers, and this literacy law was the answer. Newspapers of the time were strong supporters of the bill, as were women’s groups.

“We do not want to be ruled by an inferior race, nor dominated by an illiterate one.”

So said one such widely circulated editorial of the time in The Daily Empire – declaring Alaska “white man’s country.” Politicians themselves threatened other representatives if they voted against the bill, with Rep. H. Royal Shepard declaring, “the man who curries favor with the Indian vote by opposing this bill is not again elected.”

While an initial bill had failed by one vote to pass in 1923, the 1925 effort to pass the bill was stronger still. Ads were taken out in the Empire warning of Native people being given rights to sit on juries, able to attend white schools and “mingle with” white children. Some political candidates warned that the Native people of Alaska were aiming to start a race war with the measure.

Before any such law could be passed, William Paul was elected to the territorial legislature. He was the first Native elected to the Alaska territorial legis­lature. Native voters came out in huge numbers.

In the end, the reaction to a Native elected official fueled the racist fears of the white Alaskan population, and an amended literacy law was passed with only two dissensions in the territorial house and unanimously in the senate.

Targeted Alaska Native voter suppression continued in Alaska through the next several decades, into statehood. It was only in 1965 that the national Voting Rights Act was passed, and Alaska was guaranteed stronger voting protections. The Department of Justice was given power to regulate elections in states where there was a strong history of voter suppression against minorities – and Alaska more than qualified for these protections.

In recent years, voting rights have seen both progress and regression. In 2013, Alaska was found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act because it did not provide election materials in Native languages. But also in 2013, a Supreme Court ruling struck down specific provisions of the Voting Rights Act. More election materials are being translated into a few Native languages, but not all. And certain new voting measures favor urban voting systems, but put rural Alaskan voting at risk.

In Alaska, voting is no small thing. Alaska has the highest population of voting-age Native people of any state, at roughly 17 percent. This is a huge bloc of voters, who can hold major sway for elected officials, bills and the expectation that their rights will be upheld.

The history of the Alaska Native vote is a long, arduous struggle, and total enfranchisement is still not completely achieved. But the power of the Native vote grows stronger each election, and Millennials, the largest single generation of Alaska Natives in its history as a United States territory, are now all of an age to vote. With voter registration efforts, Get Out the Native Vote campaigns, and increased political interest, Alaska Native people have more political power than ever before.

But first must come the vote.

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This article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of First Alaskans Magazine. Subscribe here to First Alaskans.
Vera Starbard (Tlingit/Dena’ina) is editor of First Alaskans Magazine, and playwright-in-residence at Perseverance Theatre. She is also a writer for the PBS Kids animated children’s program “Molly of Denali.”
Button graphics used with permission from Get Out the Native Vote.