Amanda Frank lives in Anchorage. She previously authored “We are not your pawns.”
Governor Dunleavy was on Alaska Public Media’s Talk of Alaska recently and a caller by the name of Phillip asked a brilliant question.
“Hi yeah, I’d like to talk about the policies and budget cuts that are in place including the loss of the ferry system, the tax appropriations from rural communities, in regards to a lot of other policies that we’ve seen from the administration, since these disproportionately affect rural communities which are also in effect mostly minority communities, mostly Alaska Native communities, how does the budget and the administration’s policies not show up as an example of institutional racism?”
To which the governor replied, “Well because it’s not. This is a $1.6 billion budget deficit that affects all Alaskans from every, all sectors, all corners of Alaska. My wife is Iñupiat Eskimo. We’ve been married for 31 years, I think she would probably take offense of the idea that this is a racist budget. My friends in rural Alaska, where I spent 20 years, where my children were born, probably would do the same. This is impacting Anchorage as well, Mat-Su, Fairbanks, Southeast Alaska. This, when you have a budget deficit of this magnitude it’s going to impact everybody. And so this is not a racist budget, I reject it out of hand.”
When Dunleavy was running for office, I wrote a story illustrating why Native women are not policy talking points. I’m back to reiterate again that your friendship with Alaska Natives or their basic existence in your life is not a policy talking point.
Listen, I’m busy and I really shouldn’t spend too much of my own labor to educate this guy. He’s the governor, he should be knowledgeable on this subject but he isn’t. So here’s a list of things I think you should know if you marry a native person and then decide to go into public office. It’s not comprehensive, there’s no book of rules on this, but I think there should be a set of a few generally accepted principles. Here are a few that I can think of for now.
We are not a monolith – your wife does not speak for us, although I wish she would.
There are numerous pieces of literature about this and it appears you have not read any of them, despite the fact that you claimed to live in rural Alaska for 20 years. What were you doing there? Besides damaging their school system and then leaving your post as a superintendent less than two years after you started?
There are 11 distinct Alaska Native cultures across the state and within those 11 groups there are a lot of tribes, communities, languages, dialects, corporations, and many other things that make us distinct from one another.
What connects us is the history of this land from the disastrous arrival of Russians, the illegal sale to the United States, and to the movement to reclaim ownership of our lands which resulted in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. This doesn’t even skim the top of our diverse histories.
But even still, Alaska Natives are different in many ways and at times we have banded together to advocate for our rights. This resulted in corporations, tribes, health organizations, languages, dances, histories and so much more that make us unique from one another and it makes me dizzy to think about. Additionally, it took me a lifetime and countless years of intense studying to understand it. Your wife’s possible viewpoint that your budget is not racist does not speak for the hundreds of thousands of us that live across this state.
Marrying us, dating us, or befriending us is not an answer to end racism.
I’ve got some news for you buddy, we live in a racist society. You were born into it, I was born into it, we were all born into it. Racism is more than acting a certain way. None of us get to declare I’m not racist, I have a native friend or in your case, I’m not racist, I married an Iñupiat Eskimo and go about our lives.
Racism is a specific system that exists in our country, which was built through generations of power and privilege. Blatant acts of racism like attacking or yelling racial slurs at someone is only one piece of the racial apple pie in the United States. Racism exists in many ways that we cannot see, it’s more than anything an untrained eye can see. Understanding racism takes years of studying or training and community organizing to understand. Even then, there is always something racist to uncover and address—we’ve got a long road ahead of us to end it.
Racism was built over countless generations on the backs of African slaves and stolen Indigenous land (just to name a few examples). The civil rights movement from the 1960s did not solve it. (Thank you MLK, Jr. RIP. Your work was important and paved the way for someone like me to write this!)
Racism is a system of acts on behalf of our leadership (you, by the way) where we create pathways for some people to benefit from at the detriment of others
Many of us hear the term racist and think it’s an individual behavior, the actual damage from racism comes in the form of budget cuts to education; taking away access to health care; cutting support for elders; and cutting support for power, sewer, and water services to rural Alaska. Your proposed budget harms rural Alaskans, who are mostly Alaska Natives, more than Alaskans in Anchorage, Mat-Su, Fairbanks, and Juneau.
I am sure there are things about you that make you a good person. I am sure your wife and kids love you very much, but that does not negate the systematically racist policies and cuts you have proposed.
When you mention your native wife, you are using her as a scapegoat to avoid questions about your racist policies. As an elected official, you are at the helm of our leadership and you are expected to be knowledgeable and responsive to a vast array of issues. Alaska Native people are not a monolith. Just because you married an Alaska Native does not mean you know anything about how we govern ourselves. It’s also very apparent you and her have not had many discussions about racism. She does not speak for us, no one person does.
Nothing I’ve said here is really new, or groundbreaking. But as long as the governor continues to defend his racist policies by using his Alaska Native wife, then I’m going to keep saying this and I encourage others to do the same.
Finally, his remarks remind me of an episode of The Office, where Michael Scott steps out of his office and shouts to his staff, “I declare bankruptcy.”
We all know you don’t get to declare bankruptcy and be absolved from your financial situation. Just the same, you don’t get to declare you’re not racist, or that your budget isn’t racist if you haven’t made even the slightest attempt to acknowledge and address your racism.
The only way to make changes is for everyone to speak up and hold pressure to our leadership to ensure that our questions and issues are addressed adequately with informed and well-thought answers. At the root of any paradigm shift is an individual’s behavior and behavior changes come from an expectation to do better.