The Unlikely Uprising of Progressive Politics in Alaska

As the Arctic heats up and the oil economy tanks, progressives find their voice in a conservative state.

Enei Begaye, executive director of Native Movement, addresses protesters at a climate rally directed at U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 7, 2017. 

Photos by Stephen Miller.

It’s unseasonably warm in Fairbanks, Alaska. A city that sees snow eight months out of the year is just beginning to bud. I’m in the backseat of a Subaru, getting a tour of the town from three environmental and Indigenous rights activists with a busy week ahead of them.

Fairbanks is about to host the Week of the Arctic, a gathering of media and high-level officials from each of the eight countries that hold a stake in the region. The United States is an Arctic country by virtue of Alaska, and this year Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will discuss Arctic management with international delegates, members of the region’s many Native groups, as well as U.S. mayors, legislators, and representatives. 

For a few days, Fairbanks will make headlines in English, Russian, Finnish, Danish, Icelandic, and Sami.

The meetings present a powerful opportunity for activists, and I’d imagined some show of dissent among the few left-leaning folks who live here. But I wasn’t expecting this red city in a staunchly Republican state to be fostering such a vocal progressive enclave.

Some say it started with the Women’s March. Activists here hoped to march in solidarity with people across the country who were rattled by Trump’s ascendancy. Last winter was a cold one, and the temperature in Fairbanks on Jan. 21 dipped to 20 degrees below zero. Jeannine Haney, an organizer with March On Fairbanks, was hoping to see a couple hundred people turn out. Instead, around 2,000 took to the snowy streets.

After 17 years in Fairbanks, Haney said, she was surprised to suddenly find so many like-minded people. Rallies, meetings, and Facebook groups have brought progressives out of the bush and connected them on everything from environmentalism to education and Indigenous rights.

Jessica Girard agrees. There’s been a marked increase in political activity, she says as she pulls the car into a dusty parking lot where maybe 200 people are gathering. Girard is the program director for the Northern Alaskan Environmental Center, and she helps run an activism training class that has recently grown to about 50 students.

Alaska has been navigating a crisis of its own.

Key to the unlikely growth of progressive activism here has been intersection of causes. Case in point is Girard, a combat veteran who now focuses her efforts on environmental justice, and she’s just brought us to an education rally.

While the country has been enduring the Trump political drama, Alaska has been navigating its own crisis. The state’s economy has been dependent on oil revenue since it eliminated its income and sales taxes amid obscene industry profits in 1980. But now the oil market has collapsed, and the state budget is hurting. In response, state legislators have made deep cuts throughout the budget, and especially to education.

Today’s protesters are out in force against a new legislative proposal to gouge another $22 million from the University of Alaska system. Balancing the budget by gutting education is like “trying to get out of hole by cutting the rungs off a ladder,” says Enei Begaye, one of my guides for the day. She’s director of Indigenous rights group Native Movement. 

She and others would rather see the state bring back an income tax. That’s a tough sell for residents who have gotten used to the state paying them through the Permanent Fund dividend. That such a tax bill is already making its way through the state House provides some sense of the dire straits Alaska is in.

Alaska-defend-march-environmental-protections.jpg

Protesters march in support of Arctic environmental protections at a rally in Fairbanks, Alaska on May 7, 2017.

The Save Our Schools rally gears up, and the crowd hoists signs that read, “Education costs less than ignorance.” State Rep. David Guttenberg and Montean Jackson, who directs the local school district’s drug-free and alternative discipline programs, rail against the proposed cuts. The crowd cheers. Then the organizers pass around Senate President Pete Kelly’s phone number, and people at the rally light up the senate office’s switchboard with complaints.

Although many of these progressive activism groups have existed for years, the narrative in Fairbanks echoes what’s occurred throughout the nation. “Years ago, people wouldn’t talk about this, and organizing was much harder,” says Christina-Alexa Liakos of Greenpeace USA. “Now you make a space, and people show up.”

In Alaska, Trump’s anti-environmental platform is especially at odds with reality.

In Alaska, which experiences the impacts of climate change like no other state, Trump’s anti-environmental platform is especially at odds with reality. Tillerson, who previously served as CEO of ExxonMobil, embodies that disconnect, a fact that is not missed by Alaskans who remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill. So it’s no surprise that three days after the Save Our Schools rally, I run into Girard, Begaye, and Liakos at another protest in downtown Fairbanks where the secretary is scheduled to arrive.

It’s evening, but at this latitude the sun is still high in May. People spread out before a long white banner that reads, "Welcome to the frontlines of climate change." Three volunteers in Tyrannosaurus Rex costumes dance as speakers from Defend the Sacred Alaska and Native Movement address the crowd, which by now has grown to close to 200. After a prayer, they begin a march to where Tillerson is supposed to be sequestered out of sight.

Along the way, I meet Brenna Carlson, a Fairbanks lifer who now works for the school district. She’s been amazed at the response of the youth in town since the election, and says it’s been good to see more news outlets covering rallies. “I didn’t realize so many people were politically active here,” she says.