Skip to main Content

Walker backs renaming Western Alaska census area that honors slave owner

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 24, 2015

BETHEL -- A former plantation master and Confederate general propelled to the office of South Carolina governor by a terror campaign against former slaves no longer will be honored with a Western Alaska census area in his name, a spokeswoman for Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said Wednesday.

The area of 20 villages and seasonal communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta including Hooper Bay, Emmonak and St. Mary's is named for Wade Hampton, a man who also served as a post-Civil War U.S. senator from South Carolina but who never came to Alaska. His son-in-law, a territorial judge in Nome, named what was then a new mining district for him. It later become the Wade Hampton Census Area.

Walker, in Nevada for the annual meeting of the Western Governors' Association, said in an email that "he does plan on renaming the district," said Katie Marquette, Walker's press secretary. He will work on the process within the next few weeks, she said.

Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, has been pushing for a change, saying the name "Hampton" never belonged and never represented the largely Yup'ik population of the area.

Naneng has been talking about it quietly for years, and now a new round of racial terror in South Carolina is bringing the matter to the forefront. Charleston police have charged a young white man, Dylann Roof, with gunning down nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the country's oldest and most significant black churches. Friends say he told them he wanted to start a race war.

In a letter Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski urged Walker to seek a name change, and state Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, also expressed support to Walker for a new name.

"National articles are beginning to cast a critical eye on Wade Hampton's legacy," Murkowski wrote.

She cited a piece on with the headline "It's Not Just the Flag: South Carolina Officially Celebrates Hero of White Death Squads." The blog item referred to the campaign of killings and disruption by the Red Shirts, a white paramilitary organization, that landed Hampton in the governor's office. The Slate writer questioned why Hampton is memorialized with a statue in the U.S. Capitol.

"It is beyond comprehension that our state has not thought to discontinue its chance association with the name Wade Hampton before this time," Murkowski wrote.

Naneng is from the coastal village of Hooper Bay, the biggest village in the census area. There, the city and Hooper Bay tribe on June 15 passed a resolution supporting a change to Kusilvak Census District. The Kusilvak Mountains are the tallest in the area, with the highest point at 2,400 feet, according to Orth's Dictionary of Alaska Place Names.

Residents in Alakanuk and Nunam Iqua have expressed support for the Kusilvak district, Naneng said. It is pronounced COO-sil-a-vak.

A census area is a demographic recording district, and it exists only in Alaska. Most of the census areas in the state correspond with boroughs or are named after geographic features.

The U.S. Census Bureau has said a name change merely requires an official letter from Alaska indicating a consensus for a new name.

Naneng said Wednesday that he anticipates the Association of Village Council Presidents and other groups will join the drive for the new name.

"It's progress," he said. "When things need to be changed, they need to be changed."

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.