"Native-Influenced Districts" - A Redistricting Update

Alaska is not as marred by so much of the history of American violence and repression that Natives in other parts of the United States experienced, but there are still many stories of injustice: Into the 20th century, businesses and other venues in my own town and many others practiced Jim Crow-like discrimination, and Alaska Natives today still experience many difficulties due to historical legacies and continuing disadvantages in a state and country dominated by people of European descent. Besides this, of course, Natives in Alaska have also seen whites invade and take over their lands and resources, just as native peoples experienced elsewhere.

(Images: Above, the Chief Kyan pole in Ketchikan, taken from here, which I wrote about recently. Below, the poles outside the Cape Fox Lodge, in Ketchikan.)

Nevertheless, I feel extremely proud as an Alaskan that Natives in my home state receive the power and respect that they do. Alaska Natives do not live on reservations, save for the Tsimshian residents of Metlakatla, located on Annette Island near Ketchikan, whose predecessors immigrated from Canada and established the reservation intentionally. Instead, Alaska Natives benefit from corporations, which, following a long - and continuing - process of pursuing federal legislation, possess ample resources throughout the state allowing them to benefit from dividends and a variety of programs. For myself, I greatly respect Tlingit culture and have worked hard to learn as much as I can about its unique history and ongoing presence from books, sites, and the people around me. It's even a bit of a dream of mine to learn Tlingit, as I truly believe the language should live on in Southeast Alaska. I believe Native traditions and lifestyles should retain their vitality throughout Alaska, and I am extremely glad that, unlike elsewhere in this country, those cultures and lifestyles live on today.

Why do I say all this? I say it because what I'm about to say might be controversial.

First of all, back when I wrote this post - Alaska Redistricting: Gerrymandering and Racial Divisions - I knew very little about the processes and objectives of the Alaska Redistricting Board, and indeed I stated as much at the time. I wrote that long piece out of concern sparked only by what I saw in looking at the maps proposed by the board. Now, however, I've encountered a short news blurb from a Southeast Alaska radio station that shines some light on the situation:
Chairman John Torgerson said the Board’s initial focus was rural Alaska.

'One of (our) first actions was to formally state our intentions of drafting a plan that included nine Alaska Native-influenced districts.'

Torgerson says it was done to comply with the Voting Rights Act’s requirements to avoid retrogression.

'Retrogression is drawing a district or a redistricting plan in manner that worsens minority voting strength as compared to the last plan that we are under,' says Torgerson.
Compliance with the Voting Rights Act's retrogression rule is something I suggested as a possible motive for the board's outrageous proposals - perhaps the most benign reason they might have for tearing up communities and regions as they seem to wish to do. However, even with the board stating this as their goal, I still say, for all the reasons I detailed in my previous post and more, that this is unacceptable.

First of all, what is a "Native-influenced district" anyway? I suppose it means a district where a large enough proportion of the population is Native that there's a good chance a Native will be elected - or at the very least, whoever is elected will be beholden to a large Native constituency. For various reasons, I would guess that many Alaskans support this goal of creating Native-influenced districts as praiseworthy. After all, Natives constitute the largest minority in Alaska, making up over 15% of the population. In the U.S. electoral system, districts elect one representative each - whoever gets the highest number of votes - so basically, the choice of the political minority, even if they make up 49% of the votes, may never get a place in government. One could easily reason that the way to give minorities places in government would be to design districts where they become a majority - and that is what the redistricting board is proposing.

If this is the real objective, however, I propose a better idea: Why not divide Alaska into racial voting districts? Since "whites" make up 70% of the state, they should get 70% of the state house's 40 seats - so 28. At 15%, Natives would get 6 seats, and the remaining 6 would go to Asians, Latinos, African Americans and people of mixed ancestry. Of course, your ballot would be race-specific, given only to people of your own ethnicity to vote for candidates of your own ethnicity to fill your racially-allocated seats. The U.S. government already makes it its business to find out everyone's "race" in the census, so I think the idea is entirely possible.

Of course, my proposal is entirely satirical and sarcastic. If you actually think such an arrangement would be appropriate, you and I should have a talk. My point is that treating people as political units according to their skin color is wrong. If my proposal of making neat racial "districts" for voting would be discriminatory and wrong, why is it acceptable to do the same thing while still acting within our current political framework of districts based on territory? Remember the proposed Senate District C? Yes, that includes the dark brown and dark purple on the image at the right, covering the interior surrounding the Yukon River and stretching down all of the western half of Southeast Alaska. This huge, snaking area is designed to be a "Native-influenced" senate district.

At the bottom of this, the problem is that race is treated as the primary factor in a person's political allegiance. Look at the proposed division to the left in my home area between districts 5-C and 1-A. Prince of Wales Island, the landmass in the lower left, is not left to be the community that it is - a large number of small towns linked together by a large number of roads spanning a huge island (the 4th largest in US territory) that are left over from the logging industry that used to thrive there. Instead, Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove are separated from the rest of the island, basically because they are mostly white in population. If you compare Thorne Bay and Kasaan, the first has more whites and the second more Natives, but the two communities are incredibly similar. Their children attend the same schools, their residents drive the same roads and do the same things, and what's more, they're only a dozen miles apart. (They also only have a few hundred residents between them.) All the same, the redistricting board doesn't think they should have the same representative or the same senator in the state government - not even the same senator!

This is but a single example. The division of Saxman and Ketchikan, also visible on that map, is possibly even worse. This is because instead of just being close communities, Saxman and Ketchikan actually are the same community. Greater Ketchikan basically consists of one long strip of development, mostly along a single road, and the sections of the city proper, as well as Saxman, are simply bulges in the middle of the strip. There aren't even any schools within Saxman for children there to go to if they wanted to; it is a "village" of a few hundred people, i.e., a neighborhood. It's not as if Saxman is entirely populated by Natives, as the board seems to believe: It's 66% Native. My aunt, uncle and cousin live in Saxman, actually, and the City of Ketchikan, for its part, isn't homogenous either. In fact, with 20% of the population Native, Ketchikan has about 5% more Natives and 5% fewer whites than the state as a whole. Given the city's large population, though, that doesn't end up being enough to make it a part of a "Native-influenced district." Thus, my aunt, uncle and cousin would have a different representative and senator than me in the state government, even though we live a few miles apart in a extremely connected community. Ketchikan isn't a segregated place, but the redistricting board wants to make us one.

Take note, in all of this, that I am not saying ethnicity, heritage and culture are not irrelevant to Alaska politics or out of bounds for public policy in the state. On the contrary, they are incredibly important, and such issues should not be discarded in pursuit of "color-blind" attitudes that might leave serious problems ignored.

However, pursuing redistricting that treats grouping people by skin color as the first priority in state politics, to the loss of Alaska's diverse communities, is in my view nothing short of racism.