Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin routinely notes her husband’s Yup’ik Eskimo roots. But those connections haven’t erased doubts about her in a community long slighted by the white settlers who flocked to Alaska and dominate its government.
Since she took office in 2006, many Alaska Natives say they’ve felt ignored when she made appointments to her administration, sided with sporting interests over Native hunting rights and pursued a lawsuit that Natives say seeks to undermine their ancient traditions.
Alaska’s population today is mostly white but nearly a fifth of its people are Native Americans — primarily Alaska Natives. Blacks and Asians combined make up less than 10 percent of the state’s population.
As a result, race relations in Alaska are different from those in other states. Palin inherited a complex, sometimes strained relationship with Alaska Natives. There is a wide economic disparity between its predominantly white urban areas and the scores of isolated Native villages, and competition between sport hunting rights and tribal sovereignty.
Early in her administration, Palin created a furor by trying to appoint a white woman to a seat, held for more than 25 years by a Native, on the panel that oversees wildlife management. Ultimately, Palin named an Athabascan Indian to the game board, but not before relations were bruised.
When Palin this summer fired Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, a Native, she replaced him with a non-Native. His successor resigned after 10 days on the job, when a previously undisclosed reprimand that stemmed from a sexual harassment claim against him came to light.
The Monegan firing is the subject of two state investigations. Palin is accused of firing Monegan because he refused to fire her sister’s former husband, a state trooper.
Two weeks after she was tapped as John McCain’s running mate, Palin named a Native to Monegan’s old position.
Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor’s Cabinet members and chief advisers represent the state’s diversity. For example, Palin’s communications director, Bill McAllister, is part black. Her commissioner for the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, Emil Notti, is a noted Alaska Native leader.
"The governor is colorblind when it comes to hiring," Leighow said.
But Duke University political science professor Paula McClain, who went to high school in Alaska and now specializes in minority relations, said Palin’s actions suggest she has "a political tin ear or that she simply doesn’t care."
"In a state like Alaska, how can you not be aware of how not reappointing a Native is going to play? At best, she’s naive," McClain said.
Alaska Natives — the term includes indigenous Eskimo, Aleut and Indian populations — tend to lean Democrat. Many prominent Native leaders have endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president.
But the mother of Palin’s husband, Todd, is a quarter Yup’ik Eskimo. Each summer, he heads to his birthplace in Western Alaska to work in the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery.
Palin’s family ties would suggest she would be more sensitive to Native issues, said Stephen Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage history professor. But in her 21-month tenure, the governor has used those ties mostly to highlight her experiences in commercial fishing, moose hunting and general outdoorsmanship.
"She has not manifested, so far, any extraordinary measures on behalf of Alaska Natives," Haycox said.
Alaska Inter-Tribal Council Chairman Mike Williams of Akiak said he’s been seeking an audience with Palin to address tribal concerns ever since she was elected governor, but her staff keeps telling him that her schedule is full.
"She’s so busy that she doesn’t have time for the tribes. There needs to be respect and a dialogue," said Williams, who is also Yup’ik Eskimo.
This time of year, Williams is busy putting away meat, fish and berries for the winter — supplies that are critical to survival in cash-poor rural villages — and he said he wants to explain to Palin how increased pressures from sport hunting and fishing as well as oil and mining have eroded native hunting lands.
Palin’s Director of Community and Regional Affairs, Tara Jollie, a member of the Chippewa tribe of North Dakota, said the popular governor’s schedule is busy, but she has attended events such as the yearly gathering of the Alaska Federation of Natives and a recent bridge dedication honoring a native leader.
Jollie also said many of Palin’s initiatives, like energy assistance and sharing state revenues with municipalities, are particularly important to the rural Natives coping with some of the highest fuel costs in the nation.
"It’s her nature to want the best for all Alaskans," said Jollie. "She would treat her native constituency exactly the same as any other constituency."
Associated Press writer Anne Sutton contributed to this report from Juneau, Alaska.