Note: Opinions expressed in commentaries on KCAW are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by the station’s board, staff, or volunteers.

As a Sitka voting resident and Tribal Citizen, I understand my right to attend and offer public testimony on matters considered by the Sitka Assembly.

David Sam

On July 14th, I gave public testimony on two concerns: mandating mask wearing as a preventative measure and the removal of the Baranov statue.

What I was not prepared for was the blatant disrespect and racist rant stated by the head of this governing body, Mayor Gary Paxton.  In a silent room, it served as a dog whistle to the continuation of unwritten policies and historical references.

I approached the microphone to speak and removed a chair so that I might stand while speaking to assure that all could hear me.  In a loud, angry, denigrating voice Paxton ordered “move it back!!! now!!! move it back… This is not some honky tonk…son!”

I was stunned and angered by the very public stereotypical references to a honky tonk (disreputable bar or club), and as an elderly Tlingit man, by being called “son” in a tone and demeanor used which clearly is equivalent of being called “boy.”

The threatening tone and blatant references delivered clear messages to a silent room:

1) if you identify with Mr. Sam, at this point of contact, the message is be silent or face retribution or worse.

2) if you recognize and own these same opinions as the mayor, the message is you are being reassured that you are in charge. This portrayal demonstrates how the mayor represents his constituents.

This outburst by the mayor exemplifies systemic racism in Sitka and elsewhere. 

Tlingit people have a 10,000 year history in this Tlingit Aani, too much of it darkened by this kind of behavior. Indigenous peoples’ and their allies’ identification with the Black Lives Matter movement is not some mimicry of the Lower 48.  Alliances have been formed and have evolved from our shared past and current lives. Individuals and organizations have reached out to say “I/we hear you and stand with you.”

When asked in a recent interview what the assembly’s role is in addressing systemic racism in Sitka and in America, Paxton first stated that he believes there is racism in Sitka and in America, followed by: “Call me naive or whatever, I don’t think we’re a racist town. I don’t think we’re a racist nation.” Sounds like double-talk.

Which is it Mr. Mayor? Why are millions of Americans (including Indigenous people) still on the streets (including Sitka) saying otherwise?

Like the “undelivered” apology Mr. Paxton claims to have made to me, the mayor has made clear his role and his responsibilities to the Indigenous People of Sitka when he said:

“I am hard-pressed to think of systemic racism (in Sitka) but if there is such a thing, then you need to figure out how to solve it.

There is much lost when any individual or group is denigrated and silenced. I urge you to ask for leadership that respectfully hears and values all community voices.

Disclosure: David Sam serves on the board of directors of CoastAlaska, Inc., a nonprofit consortium which provides administrative, engineering, and editorial services to KCAW and other public broadcasters throughout the state.