Did the Tlingit “shaming” totem pole featuring images of President Trump and Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy cause the governor to restore most of the nearly half a billion dollars he cut from the state budget?
Well, it didn’t hurt. The 11-and-a-half foot red cedar pole arrived in the state capital of Juneau from where it was carved in Sitka just in time for the kickoff of the Recall Dunleavy signature drive on August 1.
Designed and created by Tlingit master carver Tommy Joseph and his partner and apprentice Kristina Cranston, the pole features an image of Trump at the base and one of Gov. Dunleavy at the top. A baby’s pacifier is held in Trump’s right hand and a bone spur protrudes from his left foot. A separate wooden pacifier in the president’s mouth can be removed and replaced by viewers.
In the middle, two Twitter birds and an area above them made with black chalkboard paint provide viewers with a place to write Trump’s recent tweets or to write their own comments. On the reverse side is a red necktie that runs the entire length of the pole. Atop the pole is a glowering image of Gov. Dunleavy, who in June cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to state programs that benefit seniors, the homeless and the University of Alaska among others.
‘Shame on you’ became the mantra
"Our governor has been in office for less than a year and he’s pretty much stripping programs everywhere that are affecting everybody, homeless shelters, education… Our entire research program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is gone,” Joseph, a Tlingit of the Kaagwaantaan clan, said in an interview.
Joseph’s wife and apprentice of eight years, Kristina Cranston, also Tlingit, explained how the pole was created during an intensive three-day period over a weekend at the end of July.
“When we decided ‘shame on you’ became the mantra, Tommy just started working Friday morning on that log and he worked three days, 12 to 14 hour days. I assisted when I could and we had it done by that Sunday night,” she said.
Since that interview, Dunleavy has made a dramatic reversal. As reported previously by Indian Country Today reporter Joaqlin Estus, Gov. Dunleavy made a series of announcements beginning on August 12 that he is reversing his position on many of the $444 million of line-item vetoes he made in June to the state’s 2020 budget. These reversals include $21.6 million in funding to the state’s senior benefits program and nearly $70 million in funding to the University of Alaska.
Many believe this reversal is due to the grassroots “Recall Dunleavy” campaign begun on August 1. The popular response to the petition drive was immediate. The group, chaired by Tlingit activist Meda DeWitt, announced on Thursday that 36,731 signatures have been gathered.
The reason for Alaska’s budget shortfall: dropping oil prices
Alaska runs on oil. Alaska has no state income tax or sales tax and relies on tax revenue from oil companies. Oil wells on Alaska’s North Slope have been producing oil and sending it through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System since the mid-1970s. Over half the state’s income is provided by taxes on this oil.
The price of crude oil has dropped in recent years due to the increased efficiency of gas-powered vehicles and also the rise of fracking, which allows oil production from previously inaccessible oil fields in other parts of the country. As a result, Alaska currently has a budget shortfall of $1.6 billion.
In previous years, the state’s budget deficit was resolved by dipping into the Alaska Permanent Fund, which was established in 1976 to allow Alaska residents to share in the windfall created by North Slope oil production. Residents receive a yearly distribution payment from this fund. But dipping into it caused distribution payments to be reduced. Last year residents received $1,600.
Dunleavy, a Republican, was elected last November primarily due to his promise to provide a $3,000 Permanent Fund Distribution to Alaska’s residents. He intended to do this by cutting items from the state budget. On June 28, Dunleavy announced a total of $444 million in cuts in the form of 182 line-item vetoes to the state’s operating budget.
The bulk of these cuts were to the University of Alaska, which would have lost $130.25 million in funding. Funding to Health and Social Services, which includes senior and homeless programs and $40 million in Medicaid funding, would have had benefits reduced by a total of $90.94 million.
The Recall Dunleavy backlash
In response to these massive cuts, which would have crippled the University of Alaska and severely affected the state’s poor, elderly and Alaska Native citizens, a plan to remove Dunleavy as governor began organizing in July. A signature-gathering campaign officially began on August 1.
The Tlingit shaming pole traveled around Juneau that day, appearing in front of the State Legislature building, the governor’s mansion, and finally the Tlingit-owned Planet Alaska Gallery where it was displayed for several days. Signatures for the recall campaign were gathered there and at many other locations around the state.
Within 2 weeks the campaign gathered well over the 28,501 signatures necessary to pass the first phase of the recall process as outlined by the state’s constitution. Many believe this quick response is what caused Dunleavy to reverse his position on many of his cuts. Another factor might be similar recall efforts currently underway against the governors of New Jersey, Colorado, Oregon and California.
Will the Recall Dunleavy campaign lose momentum now that the governor has walked back many of his cuts? The deep-seated resentment by many Alaskans against the governor, who was supported by the Koch brothers and big oil companies both before and after his election makes this unlikely. Many point to Dunleavy’s unwillingness to do away with or reduce an oil tax credit currently given by the state to big oil companies.
The shaming pole will soon travel to Ketchikan and then to Anchorage, the state’s largest city. From there, Joseph and Cranston hope it will travel through other states and finally to Washington, D.C. where the root is located of what many consider the shameful cruelty toward the poor and marginalized people of our country.
The White House did not respond to a request by Indian Country Today for comment.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.