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Strong turnout for Alaska Native Vote event

Speakers urge Natives to take advantage of voting rights

Posted: September 28, 2012 - 12:09am

Attendees of an Alaska Native Vote event at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall Thursday had the opportunity to learn about the voting process, get registered to vote and more.

The event, supported by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Sealaska Corp., the League of Women Voters, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp 70, and the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, was aimed at empowering Native residents to organize politically and participate in upcoming elections.

“It’s not really about the party that you vote for. It’s about us getting together, organizing,” said Ishmael Hope, a Juneau storyteller who delivered the opening remarks at the event just after 4 p.m. Thursday. “If we have a large Native voter turnout, the issues that affect us, we’ll have a say. We’ll have a voice in those issues.”

Hope addressed the growing number of people in the hall.

“You might already be motivated,” Hope said. “You might already be registered to vote. And if you’re not, certainly, please go back and talk to the folks back there, in the back of the room.”

Behind the rows of tables, against the back wall, volunteers in white shirts manned tables for voter registration, absentee ballot applications and general information. A mock voting station was set up as well, simulating the voting booths at polling places throughout the state.

One volunteer, Carmaleeda Estrada, said she was working the event because of her own interest in voting.

“I work for Sealaska Heritage Institute, and so we’re partnering with the other Native local organizations just to get the word out about voting and why it’s important, not only for our people, but for the community in general,” Estrada explained.

President Edward K. Thomas, the leader of the CCTHITA, delivered some remarks after Hope concluded up at the podium in the front of the room.

“When we look back at the issue of voting, we take voting for granted right now. When you look back to 1924, prior to that year, not only we couldn’t vote, but we couldn’t hold property,” Thomas said, to some groans from the audience. “We couldn’t hold public office.”

Thomas said the Native vote should be taken seriously, pointing to the write-in victory of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in 2010.

Murkowski credited support from Native voters in large part for enabling her win.

That point was picked up by attendee Harold Martin as well.

“People are beginning to realize how important the Native votes are,” Martin said, standing near the back of the room. “We pushed Murkowksi over. They know that we can have power if we want it.”

Even before 5 p.m., when coordinator Melissa Kookesh said they had figured more people would show up as they got off work for the day, turnout was high and quickly growing.

“We’ve prepared food for 300,” said Kookesh, an assistant to Thomas. “I wasn’t expecting this many.”

David Lambert said he just decided to check out what was going on at the event.

“My lady’s brother works in the kitchen as a cook, and he invited us to come down,” Lambert said. “And so we decided to come down and see what’s going on.”

Lambert said he was planning on registering to vote as well.

The Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall event was one of several voter registration drives scheduled throughout Southeast Alaska, including events in Craig, Sitka and Hydaburg, as well as one at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau next Thursday.

“We’re trying to get out the Native vote,” Kookesh explained. “We’re trying to get as many people as we possibly can registered throughout Southeast Alaska.”

According to Sealaska’s assistant communications director, Dixie Hutchinson, 243 people attended the event and 40 people registered to vote.

Juneau’s municipal election is next Tuesday. Under Alaska law, however, a person must register to vote at least 30 days before an election in order to vote in it.

This year’s general election, which includes elections for president, the Alaska State Legislature and the United States House of Representatives, falls on Nov. 6. Anyone wishing to vote in the general election must be registered to vote at their current residence by Oct. 7.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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