Lately I’ve been wondering if an Alaska Native political party would be a viable political force in state politics, especially in the context of our current dual party system. Historically, Alaska Natives have tended to vote Democrat, ostensibly because that party’s values and political platform are the closest approximation to our own. In looking at different Indigenous political parties in Greenland and New Zealand/Aotearoa, I wonder if Alaska Natives would be better served by our own political party, the Alaska Native Party.
The Democratic Party is a national party, and its values, platform and ideology may in some instances fall short of meeting and/or consistently representing the unique needs and aspirations of Alaska Native communities. I can imagine an Alaska Native Party serving the interests of rural and urban Alaska Natives in the following ways:
- Culture and language: Alaska Native cultures and languages are under threat from myriad forces. If we had our own party, it could help ensure disbursement of the resources and support needed to safeguard Alaska Native languages and cultures.
- Unity: Alaska Native Corporations and tribes are often at loggerheads, and the Alaska Federation of Natives has failed to address this division, a division which harms all of us. An Alaska Native Party could unify all Alaska Native peoples, rural and urban.
- Advocacy: Alaska Native advocacy organizations are tasked with lobbying state legislators on issues that are important to our communities. Native legislators and members of the Bush Caucus are often utilized. Elected members of the Alaska Native Party could help take on this role and reduce the gap between Alaska Native community challenges and concerns and policy makers.
- Cultivating political participation: An Alaska Native Party could galvanize Alaska Native participation in politics through an emphasis on bringing grassroots issues and concerns to Juneau. People would feel a true sense of ownership over and pride in the Party.
- Self-determination: The Democratic Party may fall short of lending full support for Alaska Native aspirations for self-determination in certain areas. This is because the Democratic Party has a vested interest in continuing to benefit from colonialism at the expense of Alaska Native self-determination. Alaska Native Party aspirations may include expanding jurisdiction for tribal governments, reclaiming subsistence rights, stronger local participation in resource extraction projects, lobbying for food and energy subsidies for rural Alaska in exchange for rural Alaska’s natural resource subsidization of urban Alaska, and the full implementation of international human rights.
However, there are some foreseeable challenges to the potential success of such a party. I won’t pretend to fully understand the machinations of state politics, but here are some questions that come to mind:
- Would an Alaska Native Party end up splitting the Alaska Native vote, or worse, add another layer of political division within the Alaska Native community?
- Would Democrats and Alaska Native Party representatives find themselves in opposition to each other, and how important would Democratic Party support be for the success of an Alaska Native Party?
- Given the widespread racism directed at Alaska Natives, would an Alaska Native Party be a more direct route to positive change, or would party members find few allies in Juneau and see increased racial polarization statewide?
- How could such a party garner the support of non-Native interests and allies, and frame Alaska Native concerns and aspirations in ways that are attractive to everyone?
Currently, Alaska is a red state, with both the Senate and the House controlled by Republicans. 15 percent of Alaska’s population is Indigenous, yet only three Alaska State Representatives (out of 40) and two Alaska State Senators (out of 20) are Alaska Native, or 8% of elected representatives. Alaska’s legislature is indeed “awfully white” in the words of outgoing state senator Albert Kookesh. (Apart from these five Alaska Natives and one Japanese American, Alaska’s remaining 54 legislators are white.)
There are admittedly stark contrasts between the dual party system in the US and the political pluralism found in Greenland and New Zealand. In these two countries, voters can choose between several different political parties in hopes that elected representatives from the party they favor win enough seats to form a government. My understanding is that after an election is held, elected representatives elect a premier from among themselves, who then appoints his or her own cabinet. This differs from our system in that the political leadership of a government is not directly elected by citizens.
Let’s take a look at a few Greenlandic and Maori political parties to put the Alaska Native Party idea into international context.
Greenland is a majority Inuit province of Denmark with about 60,000 residents. About 80 percent of the population is Inuit. Last month, Greenland saw the creation of the country’s sixth political party, Partii Inuit (“Party of the People”). Members of the new party will campaign for seats in Greenland’s 31 seat legislative assembly in March. Although little information is available about the new party or its platform, PI appears to strongly support Greenlandic independence, and has taken a controversial stance on cultural self-determination through language.
“We support Greenlandic values,” Partii Inuit chairman Nikku Olsen stated in a Sermitsiaq news article Tuesday (via Google Translate). “Those who would like to join our party must have a clear position that we must work for the Greenlandic society.” Although the party’s political platform remains vague, Olsen has controversially declared that Greenlandic should be the exclusive language used in Inatsisartut, Greenland’s legislative assembly. “The people of Greenland need a new rallying point, and we must build on our nationality and Greenlandic values to achieve our political objectives,” Olsen is quoted saying in an earlier article.
Inuit Ataqatigiit (“Community of the People”) is Greenland’s current leading party, holding 14/31 seats in the legislative assembly. IA rose to power in 2009, in the wake of the 2008 Self Rule Act, which creates a path for Greenlandic independence from Denmark. According to Wikipedia, IA “is a leftist and separatist political party in Greenland…The party strives to make Greenland an independent state.” Greenland is dependent on an annual block subsidy from Denmark, and IA has played an active role working to support international investment in Greenland and natural resource extraction in order to finance the road to independence.
New Zealand/Aotearoa differs from Greenland demographically, mainly in that the Indigenous Maori are a minority population. They are similar in the sense that Maori and Greenlandic Inuit are the only Indigenous groups in their respective countries.
In 2006, there were 565,329 self-identifying Maori in NZ, or about 14.3 percent of New Zealand’s population. Therefore, at least population wise, Maori are in a somewhat similar position as Alaska Natives. However, the Maori situation differs drastically when looking at Maori rights, which flow from the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document. As recognized co-founders of New Zealand, Maori face less political and cultural marginalization than Alaska Natives. However, this is not born out in social and economic status, which in many areas is just as grim as in Alaska.
There are eight main political parties in New Zealand, and two Maori-focused parties. First, the Maori Party.
The Maori Party was formed by Tariana Turia after she resigned from the Labour party in 2004. NZ’s last election was held in November 2011 and 121 members of parliament were elected. Of those seats, three are held by Maori Party members, or 2.5 percent of legislators. The following is the Maori Party message:
The Māori Party is for all citizens of this country. The party’s founding was an initiative of Māori, te kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea, for the benefit of all citizens of this land. [The party’s] policies and practices derive from kaupapa tuku iho that are values that provide for the wellbeing of all and are in a constant state of enrichment and refinement as insights are gathered from new experiences and discoveries. [The party’s] vision is of a nation of cultural diversity and richness where its unity is underpinned by the expression of tangata whenua-tanga by Māori, Te kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea and [the party’s] commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi as the founding document of this nation and to its whakapapa is steadfast.
According to the list of achievements on the party’s website, the Maori Party has focused on Maori social and economic challenges.
Party co-leader Pita Sharples discusses pre-2011 achievements in this video:
The Maori Party seems to stand for three main principles, which are as follows:
- Whānau-ora: restoring the essence of who we are;
putting the vibrant traditions from our people at the
heart of our whānau (family)
- Te Tiriti o Waitangi: We want to face our past with courage, so we can build our future together
- Kāwanatanga: we want a Government that values accountability and serving the people; we want a public service that understands the aspirations of whānau, hapū and iwi
The Mana Party, another Maori-focused party, was established by Hone Harawira after he left the Maori Party in 2011. In the 2011 election, Mana won one seat in parliament, held by Harawira. The party has focused on food security, employment, worker’s rights and poverty reduction in New Zealand.
Mana’s message is as follows:
‘Mana will promote the principle that what is good for Maori is good for Aotearoa. Mana will promote policies that allow all New Zealanders to lead a good life. Mana will outline a budget to meet those expectations. Mana will bring courage and honesty to political endeavour. Mana will guarantee a measure of people power and accountability from its MPs, that has never been seen before in this country. Mana is a principle we bring out of our history, to serve us in the present, and to provide us with the platform to transform this nation.’
You can watch Hone Harawira deliver Mana’s state of the nation address in 2011 below:
So given these examples and Alaska’s political context, would Alaska Natives be better served by an Alaska Native Party in state politics? I’m not sure. But in the example of New Zealand in particular, we can see a small number Maori-focused political party members attempting to channel the interests of their people. These parties were formed on the premise that the Labour party – perhaps analogous to the Democratic Party – does not fully encapsulate the interests and aspirations of Maori. Although there appears to be some tension between the Maori Party and Mana, they share a mutual belief that Maori-focused political parties can channel Maori values, interests and aspirations in ways that mainstream New Zealand political parties cannot.
I do not know whether or not these two Maori parties or Greenland’s nationalistic parties have been (or will be) more successful in creating positive change for their constituents than their New Zealand and Danish approximations. As I see it, the Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska’s primary Alaska Native advocacy organization, has faded from relevance in the lives of many Alaska Natives – especially among the young. The lack of a democratic process to elect the organization’s leadership, a lack of transparency, and a disconnect from the grassroots needs of communities contributes to a sense that we have been rudderless for the past several decades.
Perhaps an Alaska Native Party can be that rudder.