Voting Rights in Alaska

Last month, this country marked the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which granted women across the nation the right to vote. While some states had already passed laws granting partial or total suffrage to women, this amendment applied to every state. Alaska had already passed a women’s suffrage law back in 1913, earning praise from suffragists across the nation[1]. The victory of the 19th Amendment did not mark the end of restrictions on voting rights, however, and while the 19th Amendment helped to grant women the vote, many Americans were still denied a voice in their government on account of their race. Women of color and racial minorities did not benefit from the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Alaska Natives were largely denied the vote on the basis of the Alaska Citizenship Act of 1915, which introduced a number of additional qualifications Native Alaskans had to meet to qualify as citizens. Among the provisions listed, Alaska Natives who wanted to become citizens had to give up all tribal affiliations, undergo an examination, and obtain endorsements from five white people[2]. This act was used to hinder the ability of Alaska Natives to vote or participate in government.

The Alaska Citizenship Act would be successfully challenged in 1922, after Tlingit natives “Tillie” Tamaree and Charlie Jones were both arrested – Charlie for voting and Tillie for encouraging him to vote. With Tillie’s son, William Paul Sr., acting as attorney, the charges were fought and successfully overturned in court[3]. In 1924 the federal government passed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting citizenship to all Native Americans. The state of Alaska soon passed a bill in 1925, however, that made completing an English literacy test a requirement to vote. A 2019 report by the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted the “English literacy test is significant because Alaska had an official government policy that established a segregated school system and discouraged building high schools in rural villages.”[4] In effect, official state policy disenfranchised thousands of Alaska Natives and prevented them from voting.

Tillie Paul Tamaree

An Alaska Native or other racial minority voting was for many white people in Alaska a specter hanging over their heads. The editor of the Alaska Daily Empire in the 1920s wrote many articles balking at the idea of large groups of Alaska Natives voting. In 1925, the Alaska Daily Empire claimed: “we must have a white man’s party not alone for the protection of the white people of Southeastern Alaska. . . but because the welfare of the Indians demands it.”[5] Racism dressed as paternalism frequently appeared in newspapers, government policy, and public comment in Alaska, and was often filtered through the trope of Native dependency on and inferiority to white people. A resident of Sitka in 1924 fretted that without literacy tests in the upcoming elections the Native Alaskans would be in control of the local government and school board, saying that “When this happens our public school is certain to be overrun by Indian children to the very great detriment of the schools and the pupils now in attendance.”[6]

It was not until 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act, that literacy tests and other methods of voter restriction were declared illegal. A follow-up amendment in 1975 extended additional protections to “minority groups who have experienced historical discrimination and disenfranchisement due to limited English-speaking abilities,”[7] of which one of the groups selected for additional protection was Alaska Natives. Although much time has passed since the VRA was signed into law, restrictions on voting access and failure to accommodate those who speak native languages continue to be issues in Alaska. The right to vote is truly amazing, and it cannot be taken for granted. Many people in this country have worked hard– sometimes risking their lives – to be able to vote.

Reminder: The deadline to register to vote in Alaska is October 4th!

Written by Christopher Russell

Edited by Anastasia Tarmann

[1] The Daily Alaskan, 1913-03-22

[2] Alaska State Legislature, 1915 Chapter 24

[3] Jones, Cherry Lyon. More than petticoats: Remarkable Alaska women, 2006.

[4] Alaska Advisory Committee, Alaska Native Voting Rights. June 2019

[5] Alaska Daily Empire, 1925-04-21

[6] Alaska Daily Empire, 1924-10-03

[7] Alaska Advisory Committee, Alaska Native Voting Rights. June 2019


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