November 21, 2008
The Begich Treaty- the Villages Signed on with Their Votes
By Steve Conn
During his campaign for the US Senate, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich co-wrote a letter to Governor Sarah Palin, widely circulated by his campaign, that decried the lack of governmental response to the crises then confronting Native residents of Alaska villages. He called for formation of an emergency task force with local, state and federal officials to deal with the forced out migration from the villages to cities like his own. These Alaska natives were being driven out, he determined, by the high cost of fuel and food, lack of economic opportunities, public health and safety concerns. He cited dramatic drops in school enrollments in Nome and in the Bristol Bay School Districts. High fuel prices made travel for subsistence activities prohibitive and forced families to buy expensive commercial substitutes.
Begich (and his co-author, Anchorage school superintendent, Carol S. Comeau) pointed to recommendations by a recent Bethel hearing of the US Senate Indian Affairs Committee chaired by US Senator Lisa Murkowski and suggested these would be a good starting point. These included new bond financing, expanding Alaska's refining capacity, increasing funding for the Power Cost Equalization (PCE) program and expanding PCE eligibility to cover schools, clinics and businesses to meet immediate energy needs.
"Power Cost Equalization" might be Greek to many outside Alaska and to urban Alaskans who recently arrived, but Alaska Natives have longer memories. Back when Alaska 's funds were limited, and state capital investment was substantial in the Railbelt between Fairbanks and Anchorage to lower energy costs, a political commitment was made to rural Alaska to offset their higher energy costs in the future.
That treaty between urban and rural Alaskans was broken by urban Alaska.
Alaska Natives throughout Alaska listened to Begich, trusted him and gave him their votes. Despite Senator Ted Stevens' past record of accomplishment for rural Alaska , a record described in detail by Senator Lisa Murkowski, as she and other Senators bade Stevens a final farewell, every rural election precinct came through for Begich. Bethel gave Begich 3,069 or 65 percent of its votes. Nome gave him 2,911 or 57.9 percent. Kotzebue-Barrow came through with 3,186 or 50.5 percent and Kodiak 3,186 or 50.5 percent. Even urban Natives in Muldoon favored Begich with 3704 or 51.8 percent of their votes.
Alaska Natives' decision to back Begich gave him his narrow victory. These were not votes won away from Stevens by Bob Bird of the Alaska Independence Party. These were votes handed to Begich in exchange for his commitment to deal with a crisis of equal magnitude to the Great Influenza Epidemic, "The Great Sickness," of 1900 that wiped entire villages off of the map. Begich should consider his open letter of September 29th to Governor Palin, a commitment to act in exchange for the Alaska Native support he needed to win. Now the ball is in his court.
Steve Conn is a retired professor of justice at the University of Alaska, and former director of Alaska Public Interest Research Group. He lived in Alaska from 1972 to 2007 and is now based in Point Roberts, Wash. He recently helped collect more than 5,900 signatures from Alaskan voters to put Ralph Nader on the 2008 Alaska Presidential ballot. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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