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Election officials did less language assistance for Natives outside Bethel, court told

  • Author: Richard Mauer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 27, 2014

Alaska election officials made less of an effort to expand the reach of their Yup'ik language assistance program to regions beyond Bethel because it wasn't required under the settlement of a 2007 lawsuit, elections division director Gail Fenumiai testified Friday.

Now the state is back in court again, with plaintiffs representing Natives with limited English skills saying Fenumiai should have broadened the outreach program to the Dillingham region, the Wade Hampton census area in the delta region north of Bethel, and to Gwich'in speakers in the Interior. They say the language requirements of the U.S. Voting Rights Act demand no less.

Fenumiai, director of the division since 2008, was in office when the first lawsuit, Nick v. Bethel, was settled in 2010. She took the witness stand on Day 5 of the current trial, Toyukak v. Treadwell, in U.S. District Court in Anchorage and acknowledged she had a legal duty to provide language assistance to Native speakers.

But she said she met that duty with bilingual poll and outreach workers, along with recorded audio translations. She said the law didn't require written versions in Native languages for the ballot, the state's election pamphlet, instructions and other material.

Though Alaska creates versions of the statewide election pamphlet in English, Spanish and Tagalog -- the most common Philippine language -- Fenumiai said the state doesn't have to do the same for Yup'ik or Gwich'in. Those are traditionally oral languages, she said, even though academics and missionaries have created written versions that are widely understood among Native speakers.

"So you're already sending every household a ballot and the official election pamphlet in English?" asked one of the plaintiff's attorneys, Richard de Bodo.

"Correct," said Fenumiai.

"Why would it be difficult to send it in Yup'ik to everyone who speaks Yup'ik?"

It would be difficult to get the translation done on time, she said.

"Have you ever discussed that?" de Bodo ask.

"We've never discussed that," she replied.

De Bodo posed a series of questions reflecting a suspicion -- denied by Fenumiai -- that the Elections Division was reacting more to lawsuits than the requirements of the law in advancing its language program. De Bodo noted that in 2008, after the Nick lawsuit was filed, the division hired its first Yup'ik language coordinator in Bethel, Dorie Wassilie.

Wassilie left the job just as the settlement in that case expired, Dec. 31, 2012, de Bodo noted.

"There was no Yup'ik language coordinator after Ms. Wassilie left for a period of at least six months?" de Bodo asked Fenumiai.

"Yes, but not for lack of trying," she replied.

But a little more than a week after the current lawsuit was filed, wasn't the position finally filled again, this time by Bryan Jackson? de Bodo asked.

"I believe so," Fenumiai said.

A substantial amount of testimony was taken up with the election pamphlets mailed to every household containing the statements of candidates and judges up for retention, sample ballots, and information on ballot measures. The plaintiffs are seeking an order that the pamphlets and other material provided in English or other languages also be provided in Native languages.

"Do voters need this information in order to be informed about the election?" de Bodo asked.

"I can't speak for everyone," Fenumiai said.

"Do you read the official election pamphlet each year when it comes out?"

"No, I don't," Fenumiai said.

In the middle of responding to the next question, she appeared to have thought better of her original answer and came back to it.

"I don't read through every page of the pamphlet but I do read through it," said Fenumiai, amending herself. "I usually read the information about the candidates and the ballot measures."

During a break in the proceedings, an expert witness for the plaintiffs also amended a prior statement he made.

Walkie Charles, an assistant professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said he was mistaken in a report he prepared for the trial when he said a 2010 initiative on abortion was mistranslated into Yup'ik.

In his report, Charles had said the Yup'ik translation of a sample ballot asked whether the voter believed a minor should get parental consent before getting pregnant. The correct English version asked about parental consent for an abortion.

But Charles said the Yup'ik language was actually correct, at least for the Central Yup'ik dialect of the Bethel area. A native speaker of different dialect, Charles said he misread the letter "i" in one of the words and reached an incorrect conclusion about what it said.

Fenumiai, one of four named defendants in the suit, said her boss, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, has delegated his election duties to her and other officials in the office. She and Shelly Growden, the elections systems manager, are responsible for decisions about language assistance, Fenumiai testified.

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.