Alaska Natives still unrecognized in state song

By Jeremy Hsieh
Juneau, Alaska (AP) May 2010

Some Alaska Native leaders said they are disillusioned with their lawmakers after a third attempt failed to add a verse to the state song mentioning indigenous people – even as the Legislature turned Groundhog Day into Marmot Day and the governor signed a bill during May making the Alaskan malamute the state dog.

“It hurts that they won’t act on it,” said Tlingit elder Selina Everson, a former grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. “Our people need something to lift them up sometimes, spiritually, emotionally. ...It really hurts our Native community that they wouldn’t honor something like this.”

The song bill died on Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom’s desk when the two-year legislative cycle ended in April. She was responsible for scheduling it for final vote but never did. It was not a priority and there were more pressing issues, said Laura Pierre, Dahlstrom’s chief of staff. Final votes on the animal bills were scheduled under the watch of other legislators.

For some older Alaskans, recognizing malamutes as a state symbol before Natives sparks memories of storefront signs that said, “No Natives or Dogs Allowed,” which were common before World War II.

“Alaska’s Flag” is an ode to the flag, which bears the image of the Big Dipper on a blue field. Marie Drake’s poem first appeared in print in 1935. After being set to music, territorial lawmakers adopted it as Alaska’s song in 1955 and carried it through statehood.

Drake’s friend, Carol Beery Davis, wrote a second verse in 1986. It refers to “a native lad “ – Benny Benson, who was of Russian, Aleut and Swedish descent – whose design became the territory’s flag in 1927 and later the state flag.

The unofficial second verse is already sung and taught in many Alaska schools and the Alaska Youth Choir sang it during the Legislature’s opening ceremonies in January.

Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, who sponsored the bill to formally add the language to the state song, said she taught it when she was a teacher in the 1980s.

“I see no reason in the world why if you’re a reasonable Alaskan you couldn’t let it go forward,” Menard said.

She said it was a heartbreaking defeat and she is unsure if she’ll try again next year.

“I’m still smarting,” Menard said.

Connie Davis, daughter of the second verse’s author, said it didn’t feel right for the bill to die the way it did.

“You’re kind of disappointed in the democratic process,” she said.

Attempts in 1987 and 2002 passed the House but died in the Senate.

Supporters said adding the second verse isn’t trivial. For some, the original verse’s mention of “sourdoughs,” the gold rushers of yore, and no mention of Alaska’s indigenous people is a glaring omission that smacks of past discrimination and Eurocentrism.

“There’s a piece left out. There’s just a piece left out, and that’s the part Carol put in,” said Connie Munro, referring to her late friend. Munro is white but a tribe adoptee and life member of ANS.

Native sentiment on the second verse isn’t universal.

The Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 tribal villages in southwest Alaska, applauded the intent to recognize Natives but opposed the overall bill. Association President Myron Naneng said the issue was with the lyrics and how they were written.

“The verse should be written by kids around the state instead of someone who’s probably non-Native,” said Naneng, who is Yupik, before quickly downplaying the race factor.