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Mayor Berkowitz was ‘blackballed’ by Pioneers of Alaska. Was it due to prejudice?

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 18
  • Published September 18

The Pioneers of Alaska recently "blackballed" Mayor Ethan Berkowitz from membership using a gold-rush era ritual, raising questions about prejudice for an oldtimers' club that has faced them before.

Berkowitz is a Democrat, but the Anchorage men's Igloo 15 of the Pioneers has plenty of Democrats among its members, including former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, also a former mayor. That left several people I spoke to wondering if the vote happened because Berkowitz is Jewish.

"I don't suspect it, but it wouldn't surprise me," Berkowitz said Monday. "I hope it's not part of the coarseness that is happening across the nation, because we should be above that."

Berkowitz qualified for membership: he is male, a resident for more than 20 years, and had two sponsors. When speaking to a Pioneers convention last year he was invited to join. He filled in the application correctly, according to a club official.

At a meeting Sept. 4, without Berkowitz present, about 30 men dropped white or black marbles into a box to vote anonymously on whether he would be admitted, a process the club has used for more than a century. Three 'blackballed' Berkowitz, enough to bar him from the club.

Berkowitz said the club never informed him directly of the vote.

1st Vice President David Jensen said a lively discussion followed the outcome. He said one man who had dropped a black marble — who he wouldn't name — identified himself and said he regretted the vote.

Jensen believes the three 'no' votes came from conservatives who were fired up by the recent primary election. He said he wouldn't be a member of the Pioneers if he thought Berkowitz was rejected due to religious prejudice.

Former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, an inactive member, said he doesn't know why anyone would oppose Berkowitz's membership, but can't believe it was prejudice.

Igloo President Bill Mans said the meeting and the whole procedure should have been kept secret. (I was tipped off anonymously by a member.) Mans said the club will vote again after its membership committee reviews the mayor's application.

If the Pioneers hope to survive in the new Alaska, which is diverse and inclusive, it should do away with practices that were created to exclude.

The Pioneers formed in 1907 in Nome to divide gold rush sourdoughs from greenhorns coming to the territory. Only white men with Alaska longevity could be members. Ladies' auxiliaries formed soon after to support the men in a subservient role.

The Anchorage club (founded 1917) and auxiliary (1919) created a social nucleus of early Anchorage, said amateur historian Bobbie Bianchi, who has never been a member. Pioneer events drew much of the town.

But one of the city's first residents, Nellie Brown, wanted to join and was not allowed, even though she lived here beginning in 1912 — three years before Anchorage was founded as a tent city. Brown had come from Cordova to live with her husband, Jack, a Chugach National Forest ranger.

"Nellie was excluded from anything that everyone else in town was going to," Bianchi said. "If the Igloo had a big luncheon, she couldn't go, because she was part Native. Her mother was Eyak."

Brown died in 1978. The Pioneers allowed Alaska Natives to join only in 1982. Later in that decade, the Pioneers successfully fought legislation to add a verse honoring Natives to the state's anthem, the Alaska Flag Song.

In 2015, at the request of Mary Barry, a Government Hill neighbor who knew Brown, Bianchi helped arrange posthumous membership for her. She said the club was very gracious about adding her name. But only to the women's Igloo.

In the 1990s, women in the auxiliaries tried repeatedly to merge with the men's clubs. The Anchorage Igloo supported the change, but it never made it through the statewide organization.

"The ladies tell us what house to live in and what clothes to buy, we'd like to have a club where the ladies don't tell us what to do," said a Pioneer leader at the time, quoting others.

Sometime in the last decade, the women's group dropped the name "auxiliary," but men and women still meet separately before mingling for social occasions.

Mans said that's necessary because otherwise the business meetings would be too large. But Jensen, who at 61 is one of the younger members, said it is time for the two groups to merge.

Berkowitz said he didn't know women couldn't join. He said that should change.

Begich, who is running for governor, said everyone should be welcome in a group whose main functions are to promote Alaska history, manage a cemetery plot, participate in the Fur Rendezvous winter carnival, and put on a pancake breakfast.

"If this is something discriminatory, and if they continue to do this on Ethan, I would have a hard time continuing my membership," he said.

I've been here all my life and spent plenty of time with conservative old folks at potluck dinners. I understand their desire to hold onto the past, including a voting process you can imagine being used in a mining camp before there was effective law in the territory.

But these fraternal organizations are dying for a reason.

"If you don't have new people coming into the system, you vanish," said Igloo President Mans. "We have a lot of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s."

Current officers pose recently for Pioneers of Alaska Igloo 15. (Photo courtesy of David Jensen)

Alaska today looks nothing like those elderly, mostly white Pioneers. In fact, it never did.

The Anchorage bowl belonged to the Eklutna tribe first. Alaska Railroad construction and the gold rush drew immigrants from all over the world. African Americans had a major role in building the Alaska Highway. Jewish leaders like Mayor Z.J. Loussac were among our most important founders.

Recalling those events, Berkowitz said, "This (history) for everybody, and anyone who doesn't realize that doesn't belong (here)."

But he will withhold judgement on being blackballed.

"If people did it for the wrong reason, they're not capable of being shamed. If they had other reasons, I hope they show that when they re-vote," he said. "My hand is open and I'm forgiving."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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