When Rhonda McBride was picked as Gov. Sarah Palin's rural affairs adviser a year ago, some Alaska Native leaders were upset.
McBride was a veteran journalist who had lived in Bethel and traveled extensively in Bush Alaska, but she was not a Native. Sen. Al Kookesh, D-Angoon, told her point-blank that -- no disrespect to her -- he wanted a Native in the high-level policy job, someone able to bring a Native perspective to the governor's conference table.
Palin administration officials defended McBride's selection as color-blind: the job called for rural expertise, not specifically Native.
The "color-blind" phrase has come up several times in Palin's first two years in office, after decisions drew criticism from Natives. A still-raw example: last winter, Palin made three appointments to the state Board of Game, none of them Native, even though that would have excluded a Native from the board for the first time. The administration switched and added a Native with a confirmation battle brewing.
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"It's her nature to want the best for all Alaskans," Tara Jollie, Palin's director of Community and Regional Affairs, said in an interview last month. "She would treat her Native constituency exactly the same as any other constituency."
The treat-everyone-equally principle also appears to guide controversial Palin policies opposing rural subsistence priorities and tribal adoptions.
The result, many Native leaders say, is a growing sense of friction and neglect in their relations with the Palin administration.
"She's just sort of absent on issues. It's like an indifference," said Kookesh, the co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, which has its annual convention in Anchorage this week. He said Palin's much-touted ties to Native culture through her husband's family have resulted in "no measurable impact on the Native community."
After two years working with rural communities faced by desperately rising energy costs, McBride herself decided the critics were right about the need for a stronger Native presence in state government.
"You begin to realize there's a certain moral authority a Native voice has," McBride said last week, one day after announcing her resignation. "I think the Palin administration is very well-intended. I just don't think I can bring the message on these issues as well as an Alaska Native can."
REVENUE SHARING A PLUS
As a politician, Palin started out having to prove herself with the Native community.
Her position on the litmus-test issue of subsistence hunting and fishing -- she aligned with urban sportsmen's groups, opposing any constitutional amendment allowing a priority for rural residents -- assured minimal support from Native voters in the 2006 election. Palin's main subsistence plank was to encourage predator control, which she said would lead to more game for urban and rural hunters alike.
As governor, Palin has maintained a measure of personal popularity in rural Alaska and got a warm welcome at last year's AFN convention. With her focus on oil and gas issues, she has not gone out of her way to stir political fights with Native groups or Bush legislators. Palin's office has pointed out that she had two Natives in her cabinet: commerce commissioner Emil Notti and public safety commissioner Walt Monegan.
She made a pair of high-profile trips, soon after taking office, to the Bristol Bay village of New Stuyahok, which had suffered a series of alcohol-related deaths.
Palin's visits were mostly a morale boost, New Stuyahok mayor Randy Hastings said last week. But he credited the governor with bringing back revenue sharing funds that have been essential for paying fuel bills and running water and sewer systems in his community of some 500 residents.
Revenue sharing, along with the $1,200 energy "rebate" to each Alaskan, have been popular programs in rural communities for which Palin gets credit.
But questions about Palin's positions on Native issues flared up last month after her selection as John McCain's running mate.
COURT CASES CHALLENGE WAY OF LIFE
The McCain-Palin ticket presents an unusual profile for Native Americans. Arizona, McCain's state, has the second-largest population of Native Americans, and McCain has a long history of working on tribal issues, including gambling. Alaska ranks only ninth in numbers, but the state is 13 percent Native, by far the largest percentage.
Boosted by the Palin choice, McCain remains far ahead in Alaska opinion polls. But the Barack Obama campaign has made special efforts to reach Native voters, sending organizers to rural hub towns and circulating an Obama letter on Alaska Native issues in which the candidate notes he started his activist career "working in communities like yours."
Shortly after Palin was chosen, two prominent Native rights lawyers in Anchorage circulated a letter nationally attacking her policies in Alaska as "an assault on Native peoples." The broadside cited legal battles undertaken by Palin on subsistence, tribal adoptions and Yup'ik language assistance to voters.
Heather Kendall-Miller and Lloyd Miller said a state lawsuit over federal water jurisdiction is really a covert attack on the federal court's Katie John decision, which granted rural residents access to subsistence fishing on federal waters in Alaska. The water rights case, like a legal challenge of a Chistochina moose hunt, were launched by former Gov. Frank Murkowski but appealed under Palin.
The lawyers also flagged the administration's refusal to recognize village adoptions handled by local tribal councils, despite losses in both federal and state court.
"Palin's lawsuits are a direct attack on the core way of life of Native Tribes in rural Alaska," the Millers wrote.
The strongly worded letter was the basis of much discussion in Lower 48 reservations and the national Native press. It brought a rebuttal in the newspaper Indian Country Today from former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, who said Palin was trying to advocate for the interests of all Alaskans, Native and non-Native. He said her marrying into a Yup'ik family gave her a "personal and abiding interest" in Native issues.
In a response to Campbell, Kendall-Miller claimed Alaska Native support for the Obama/Biden ticket was strong because of Palin's subsistence lawsuits. Kendall-Miller, who was the first Alaska Native to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, was a friend of Barack Obama's at Harvard Law School and an Obama delegate this year at the Democratic National Convention.
Talis Colberg, Palin's attorney general, said the state has persisted in court to try to define clearly what tribes can do in Alaska. But the state has not challenged federal recognition of Alaska tribes, as some legislators have tried, he said.
"This is a slow process. The courts need to weigh in as to where the lines are," Colberg said in an interview last week.
QUESTIONING PALIN'S AWARENESS
Palin's relations with the powerhouse regional Native corporations has been good, said Vicki Otte, executive director of the Association of ANCSA Presidents and CEOs. Palin has met with regional corporation heads and they have worked together, mainly on preparations for a natural gas pipeline, Otte said.
But tribal leader Mike Williams of Akiak said he has been unable to schedule a meeting with Palin or get responses to his letters. Williams is chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council. He said tribes have been forced to look at her lawsuits to discern policy, lacking any clear policy statements from the governor.
Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, said people are still upset about Palin's game board appointments, even though the administration later changed course and appointed a Native. Palin's first choice for the seat was a former president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state's largest sportsmen's group. That nominee withdrew as protests threatened to ignite a confirmation battle in Juneau.
Naneng equated Palin's awareness of Native issues with foreign policy knowledge supposedly divined by Alaska's proximity to Russia: "From her house, is she able to see the Native community and the issues we have to deal with?"
Officials at the Tanana Chiefs Conference, battling Colberg over tribal adoptions, say it's unclear why the state doesn't see the harmful effects to families of its ongoing litigation.
"I don't know if they're being argumentative, or just neglectful," said TCC tribal specialist Lisa Jaeger. "I'm not sure the governor herself has ever spoken about this."
AFN president Julie Kitka declined to be interviewed on Palin's positions regarding Native priorities, referring questions to Kookesh, the organization's co-chairman.
But the normally reticent Kitka did step forward three weeks ago with a newspaper op-ed column defending the reputation of Monegan, whose firing by Palin led to the ongoing investigations known as Troopergate.
Kitka said Monegan had been a strong force for improving the justice system in rural Alaska, and she objected to complaints about his record from the McCain campaign.
"I cannot allow a fellow Alaska Native to have his reputation tarnished and used as a political football," Kitka wrote.
The Palin administration may claim to be color-blind but it has not been tone deaf when it comes to Native concerns.
After Monegan's first replacement, a white police chief, was turned out over an old sexual harassment complaint, Palin named another Native as head of the public safety department. Joe Masters, a 19-year veteran of the state troopers, is an Inupiat shareholder of the Bering Straits Native Corp. who started his career as a village public safety officer in Unalakleet.
Last week, Palin named an Athabascan as the new head of the state Fish and Game subsistence division. it was Craig Fleener, the same Native she'd named to the Board of Game after the appointment flap last winter. That meant a new vacancy on the board -- and Palin spokesman Bill McAllister declined to say, when the vacancy first opened, if it would be filled with another Native.
Meanwhile, McBride is planning to return to a reporting job with KTUU-Channel 2. McAllister also declined to say whether the next rural adviser would be a Native.
McBride said the administration has been giving cabinet-level attention lately to rural energy costs and out-migration issues. But she said in a parting e-mail that she regretted the disappearance of the Department of Community and Regional Affairs, which provided help to cash-strapped rural communities but was eliminated in 1999 by then-Gov. Tony Knowles as a cost-savings measure.
That's another reason why the rural adviser should be a Native, she said.
"As the situation in rural Alaska becomes more desperate, I think they need someone who has a real deep cultural connection," McBride said. "In the course of doing my job, I've met lots of wonderful, talented young Alaska Natives who struck me as more qualified."