Columns 2012

Alaska Native life of equal worth

My mother used to tell me stories the circumstances her parents faced when they first emigrated from Italy. Signs on buildings stated, “Italians not allowed”.  Job postings contained the added words, “Italians need not apply”. So when I moved to Barrow and heard stories from friends there about the days, not that long past, when Natives and dogs were both banned from certain establishments, I thought I had a frame of reference that allowed me to understand their pain. But I didn’t, not really.

I’m not sure anyone can have a true frame of reference for what Alaska Natives faced in the “bad old days” unless they too have been judged by the color of their skin or the slant of their eyes while the content of the mind and soul were totally discounted. It left scars on Alaska’s Native people, just as discrimination left scars on so many other people deemed different in America.

AFN works hard to bring Alaska Natives a far distance from those days. It gives them a political voice and the strength that comes with numbers. After Senator Lisa won her write in campaign against Joe Miller in large part because of the solid block of Alaska Native votes she received, it’s hard to conceive of anyone doubting their clout.

Yet in the same week that AFN was once again drawing Native groups from across the state to celebrate their cultures, their spirituality, their dancing, their arts and, perhaps most importantly, their determination to never be viewed as second class citizens again, we heard about a plea deal to give a women one year in jail for killing a Native man as he walked down the street late at night.

When I first saw the headline that said this deal had been reached in the hit and run death of Hubert Tunuchuk from Chefornak, I thought of how the agreement seemed to merely re-enforce the concept of Alaska Native life as somehow just a little cheaper than non-native life. Because given the circumstances of the crime, I think there would have probably been quite a hue and cry if this agreement had been announced in the death of a non-native.

I know nothing about Ashley Bashore. She looks like a fairly nice young lady. She was texting while driving in the dark early morning hours of Easter Sunday a year ago. When she hit “something”, she not only didn’t stop to see what she’d hit, she continued texting. And even if she honestly thought it was a dog she’d hit, something I quite frankly find hard to believe given how many dogs I’ve ever seen on the Tudor Road overpass, what kind of person doesn’t stop and try to help. Any living creature deserves better than to be left to bleed and die alone on the side of the road.

Yes, she was only 19 and probably panicked. But she was calm enough to continue to text. And 19 is not a child. At 19 you should have some sense of responsibility, some sense of the value of life, some sense that there are things in this world more important than you are. So to my mind, the judge was very right to reject a plea deal that belittled the life that was taken.

The picture in the paper of Hubert’s mother hugging Ashley’s mother after the judge rejected the plea is heartbreaking. Both have experienced terrible loss. The difference is that Ashley will eventually go home to her mother. Hubert’s mother will never hold him again. It is a tribute to the strength of Native women that she could reach out to Ashley’s mother at a time when the entire justice system of this state was about to diminish the tragedy of her son’s death. It is entirely in keeping with my experience of so many Alaska Native women I’ve been privileged to know.

AFN was in full progress here in Anchorage when this case came before the judge who rejected the plea deal. It seems serendipitous timing. His ruling reaffirmed that Native life is as valuable and sacred as non-native life. His ruling held at bay a justice system that would belittle Chefornak’s loss. He acknowledged that the dignity and worth of life cuts across all cultural lines.

Good for him.