Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, center, speaks at the Native Issues Forum at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall with Dr. carolyn Brown, left, and Freda Westman, right, on Monday.
                                Peter Segall | Juneau Empire

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, center, speaks at the Native Issues Forum at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall with Dr. carolyn Brown, left, and Freda Westman, right, on Monday. Peter Segall | Juneau Empire

Alaska Native leaders say racial discrimination still affects communities

Leaders: Lots of progress since Anti-Discrimination Act, but legacy of exclusion remains

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, became emotional Monday as she spoke to a the crowd of about 100 about her experiences in the Alaska Legislature.

“We’ve made so much progress in 75 years,” she said, referring to the passage of the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act which prohibited racial discrimination in the state.

“But sometimes in that building, you would never know the difference,” she said of the Capitol.

Speaking at a gathering at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall for a Native Issues Forum, Zulkosky said she often had to sit by fellow lawmakers who made what she considered to be derisive remarks about Alaska Natives.

It can be difficult, Zulkosky said, “when you’re sitting in committee next to people who say thing’s like ‘those people who choose to live in rural Alaska.’ ”

The panel at the Native Issues Forum at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

The panel at the Native Issues Forum at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Zulkosky didn’t mention any legislators by name, but she, like other Alaska Natives, expressed anger at legislators who have said living in rural Alaska is a choice. But many of those rural communities are ancestral homelands that have been occupied by Alaska Natives for thousands of years, Zulkosky said, and having to continually remind people of that can be stressful.

“While we’ve made progress, there continues to be somewhat of a gap in understanding the role that Alaska Native people have played in this place traditionally since time immemorial,” she said. “It’s really difficult work for tribes and Alaska Native people to continue to educate people, educate policy makers and who carry the burden to ensure that Alaskans as a state are taken care of.”

Monday’s Native Issues Forum began with the screening of a film about Elizabeth Peratrovich and the passage of the 1945 law. The film, “For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crowe in Alaska” by Jeffry Silverman is part documentary, part dramatization, with actors re-creating the debate over the bill.

After the film, Zulkosky was joined in a panel by Freda Kaagaantaan Westman, council member for Camp 70 of the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Dr. Carolyn Brown of the League of Women voters.

Brown talked about her and the League’s efforts to get copies of the film, as well as copies of the book “Fighter in Velvet Gloves,” by author Annie Boochever into every Alaska high school. The film and Boochever’s book tell Peratrovich’s life story, which according to Brown, “we have to keep telling this story, we must, we must, we must, carry on.”

In her address to the crowd, Westman said the best way to honor Peratrovich’s legacy was by showing up. Taking part in political action was good she said, but also being active in the community such as local schools.

“One of the issues that is always present is racial discrimination in our communities, but we can make a difference,” she said. “We have to hold those people in leadership positions accountable to what will make our lives better.”

Westman described the lack of ferry service in Southeast Alaska as something that demanded immediate attention. Westman even went so far as to call the situation surrounding the ferries “genocidal.”

Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand President Heather Gurko speaks at the Native Issues Forum at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand President Heather Gurko speaks at the Native Issues Forum at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

“Even discriminatory practices that are not intended can be racist, can be genocidal,” Westman told the Empire in an interview. “These are Alaska Native villages, and so when the food supply is cut off, when the medicine supply is cut off, it starts to look like an elimination of a people.”

Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand President Heather Gurko agreed with Westman’s assessment, citing the United Nations’ definition of genocide which lists “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” as a component of genocide.

“It’s disconnecting people from their communities,” Gurko said of the ferry situation. “Our people are disconnected from their communities and our people are saying that this is an act of genocide. It is a continuation of a pattern that has been happening to our people for hundreds of years.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.

More in News

Daily school district COVID-19 risk levels: Aug. 4, 2020

Risk levels are based on COVID cases reported in a community and determine how schools will operate.

In this July 13, 2007, file photo, workers with the Pebble Mine project test drill in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, near the village of Iliamma. The Pebble Limited Partnership, which wants to build a copper and gold mine near the headwaters of a major U.S. salmon fishery in southwest Alaska, says it plans to offer residents in the region a dividend. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)
Trump Jr. says he opposes Pebble project

Pebble partnership said they don’t believe the president will interfere with the statutory process.

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, talks to the media about his nomination for Speaker of the House in this February 2019 photo. Knopp died July, 31, in a plane crash near his home town. (Michael Penn/ Juneau Empire File)
Knopp’s name to remain on Aug. 18 primary ballot

Should he win, the Alaska Republican Party will be able to petition for a replacement candidate.

Image via Kenai Peninsula Borough School District
Board OKs $5-per-hour raise for school nurses

The increase in pay is set to expire at the end of 2020-2021 school year.

Soldotna High School English teacher Nicole Hewitt teaches her students remotely from her empty classroom at Soldotna High School on Monday, April 6, 2020 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Education commissioner talks school start

State reports 66 new COVID-19 cases

John Webster and Duane Jennings with the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank unload a truck at the food bank just outside of Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Food Bank sees major uptick in demand

Nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser of year undergoes changes due to pandemic

Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, is seen here reviewing his proposed changes to the Alaska Legislature regarding the AK CARES funds for small businesses at the KPEDD office in Kenai, Alaska, on July 1, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
States expands small business grants

The AK CARES Grant program is being modified in response to calls for changes.

Daily school district COVID-19 risk levels: Aug. 3

Risk levels are based on COVID cases reported in a community and determine how schools will operate.

A fire crew can be seen here at a containment line for the Swan Lake Fire in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management)
Fire crew’s departure highlights different wildfire season

With fire season winding down, state sends firefigthers south

Most Read