Known as one of Gov. Sarah Palin’s harshest critics in rural Alaska, Myron Naneng wondered if some honest-to-goodness ribbing would come his way in the aftermath of Palin’s stunning resignation announcement earlier this month.
“Many people have jokingly asked if I (should) take credit for the resignation,” said Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents. “From people on the street to other locations (around Western Alaska), I haven’t heard any desire for (Palin) to stay on.”
Palin announced July 3 she would step down as governor and hand the reigns to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell on July 26. Palin said she did it because ethics complaints and politically-ambitious state lawmakers would keep her administration from getting any work done.
The news sent political and pop culture tremors around the globe. A few days after the announcement, Naneng talked from his Bethel office about his reaction and that of rural Alaska.
“Should I say hallelujah?” Naneng said. “What’s there to be broken up about?”
Poverty, high energy costs, and concerns about access to fish and game are the issues constantly swirling around residents in remote portions of the country’s largest state.
Naneng and AVCP recently organized a media tour of Western Alaska villages to showcase the lack of subsistence and commercial fishing in the area, days after Marshall fishermen defied authorities and illegally caught 100 king salmon.
“We didn’t call it a protest,” Naneng said. “It was fishing for food.”
Naneng said he’s trying to schedule a meeting with Parnell to see how the new governor’s administration might better tackle rural Alaska’s problems.
“We’re going to try to do it sooner rather than later,” Naneng said. “The fact is things are going on in villages and on the Yukon (River) that I don’t think the governor who resigned took any strong interest in, no personal outreach. She wasn’t willing to work with us and the action taken by the administration and the Department of Fish and Game hasn’t been positive.”
Naneng is hopeful Parnell will approach rural Alaska and Native issues differently than his predecessor.
Native leaders who worked with Parnell said he’ll sit down and talk, something they could no longer do with Palin.
Native relations with Palin had chilled as her term in office progressed.
She drew a hailstorm of criticism for continuing lawsuits initiated by her predecessor, Frank Murkowski, that many say are designed to erode subsistence rights and tribal sovereignty. She stirred resentment for a decision that would have left the Board of Game without a Native member for the first time ever, a decision she later reversed, and for not initially hiring a Native as a rural affairs adviser.
Former state Sen. Georgianna Lincoln said Parnell will have a better relationship with Natives than Palin did.
During the heated debates over subsistence in 1998, then state Sen. Parnell voted against Lincoln and other rural lawmakers, refusing to support a constitutional amendment to allow a rural subsistence priority.
However, a year later, Parnell voted with those rural leaders and others in an effort to put a subsistence amendment on the ballot for voters to decide, according to state records.
The effort failed.
Parnell did not return calls seeking an interview about how he’ll deal with Native affairs.
Lincoln noted that Palin has been very slow to react to rural hardships, such as recent complaints from rural subsistence users that they will not catch enough king salmon to last the winter.
“We have a treaty with Canada to have so many fish go through, but we do not even have a treaty with ourselves to ensure that the villagers’ subsistence needs are met,” she said. “I think that’s a shame and I don’t hear anything being done about that.”
Hopefully, Parnell will be more pro-active, she said.
Al Adams, who served with Parnell in the Senate for many years, said he and Parnell often differed on issues, but always remained friendly.
Adams, who is a registered state lobbyist for clients like the Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs, said Parnell will be a much better supporter of rural and Native issues than Palin.
When Parnell served as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he showed a willingness to leave his desk and travel to remote villages with him, including Kivalina and Noatak in Northwest Alaska.
“The good thing about Sean Parnell is he’s been to rural Alaska and he knows the concerns we have there,” Adams said. “And he focuses on the right issues — energy, housing, education, public safety. So I’ve got to say he’s going to be a much more energetic and face-to-face person than the last governor,” he said.
Heather Kendall-Miller, senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, said Palin has continued the anti-subsistence court battles initiated by her predecessor.
Palin also “fought tooth and nail” in court to continue another Murkowski policy: Refusing state approval of tribal adoptions, though federal law clearly gives tribes that right, she said.
“We’ll see if Parnell is open to revisiting some of those policy decisions that were made,” she said.
Alex DeMarban and Matt Nevala
The Tundra Drums