State Sen. Albert Kookesh told an audience Wednesday he was being singled out by news media for ethics and subsistence fishing violations because of his race, hinting at similar treatment in the Legislature.
Kookesh, speaking at the Native Issues Forum Wednesday at the ANB Hall, said the news media only looks for negative stories involving Alaska Natives.
"How many of you have picked up a newspaper and seen good news about Alaska Native people?" he asked the audience.
His address during the forum, which is sponsored by the Central Council Tlingit-Haida Indians of Alaska and ANB Camp No. 2., received more than one standing ovation and positive comments from the audience during a Q&A session later.
Kookesh, a Democrat from Angoon, represents a rural, Native district and also serves as chairman of Sealaska Corp., Southeast Alaska's regional Native corporation, and is co-chair of the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives.
Earlier this year he addressed the Craig City Council on behalf of Sealaska regarding its lands bill moving through Congress, during which time he reminded the council of his role in the Senate and ability to direct money to the small Prince of Wales Island community.
The Legislature's Select Committee on Legislative Ethics found there to be an "implied" use of his senatorial power. But that outcome may have been different had there been more Alaska Natives involved.
"I walked into the ... room to meet with the Ethics Committee, there was not a Native in sight," he said. "Every one of those Ethics Committee (members) were non-Native.
"There were no rural people on the Ethics Committee, there were no Democrats on the Ethics Committee," he said, noting the statement was based on fact and not criticism.
That will be different in the future, he said, as a Native has been appointed to the Ethics Committee.
The Legislature bars release of ethics complaints against its members, and Kookesh said he was not allowed to respond publicly for a month until the committee's decision was released.
"Every day for a month the newspapers beat me up," he said, describing that period as one of the worst of his life. "A lot of people who read this in the paper actually turned their back on me."
Stories such as those focussed on him overshadow Alaska Natives' accomplishments, he said, including the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Care Consortium, Alaska Native Health Center, Native regional and village corporations, clinics, health aides, Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital, and regional groups such as the Tanana Chiefs Conference and Tlingit-Haida.
"Do you ever hear anything about them on the news? Absolutely not, because that's good stuff," he said.
Kookesh contrasted his case with that of a Kodiak woman recently charged with embezzling $724,000 from the state, which he said was a one-day story.
"How much do you want to bet she wasn't a Native?" Kookesh asked, telling the audience later that she was not Alaska Native.
"I don't think it is fair that a person can embezzle $700,000 and get a one day story and I, as an Alaska Native, can have an implied statement and I get a whole month of coverage where they vilify me. I don't think that's right."
Kookesh said he also faced extensive media coverage when he was cited for a subsistence fishing violation last summer. He said he had done nothing wrong, but expected to be convicted anyway.
"When that happened, I felt that putting my name forward and getting vilified in the press was justified because we had people paying attention to subsistence," he said.
Kookesh also said the House of Representatives was balking at adding a second verse to the Alaska Flag Song because it contains the word "Native." The bill to add the verse, sponsored by Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, passed the Senate but has stalled in the House.
"People are saying we don't want the word 'Native' capitalized in the song," he said. " ... People still have that mentality.