JUNEAU -- Alaska Native leaders are angry at Gov. Sarah Palin's appointment of Wayne Anthony Ross to be the state's next attorney general, but it's unlikely that will stop the Legislature from confirming him to the job in two weeks.
"It almost looked like she was rubbing our face in Anthony Ross's appointment.," said Tim Towarak, co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives. "Like rubbing our face on the ground, saying 'Here, take this.' "
Native organizations opposed to the confirmation of Ross have started contacting state legislative offices. Angoon Democratic Sen. Albert Kookesh said there will be consequences for Palin, even if he cannot stop the Ross confirmation.
"Rural Alaskans will remember her appointment of Wayne Anthony Ross. Natives will remember her appointment of Wayne Anthony Ross," said Kookesh, who is also a co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives. "That's where this is going."
Palin dismissed the criticism as unwarranted.
"Obviously I am not anti-Native and would never appoint anyone who is. It's unfortunate that a few vocal critics view anyone who may have a different opinion as they do as being unfit for public service for all Alaskans," Palin said in an e-mail sent out Tuesday by her spokeswoman.
The Alaska Federation of Natives legislative committee plans to meet today to talk about the appointment. The Tanana Chiefs Conference of Interior Alaska is opposed to Ross and Alaska Newspapers Inc., a rural newspaper chain, reports that the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents has drafted a resolution opposing his appointment as attorney general.
Native leaders especially object to Ross' history of opposition to the rural preference for subsistence hunting. In 1989, Ross was co-counsel on a lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court tossing out the state's rural-preference law. When Steve Cowper, governor at the time, talked about creating a constitutional amendment restoring the law in 1990, Ross called it "the worst thing that could happen."
Federal law calls for a rural subsistence preference and the state's unwillingness to comply led to a court-ordered federal takeover of subsistence hunting and fishing management across much of the state. When running for governor in 2002, Ross told a crowd in Kodiak that if elected he would hire a band of "junkyard dog'' assistant attorneys general to challenge the federal rules or seek changes in the law through Congress, according to an Associated Press story at the time.
Ross said the current criticism of his appointment is divisive and premature. He said that he thought the battle over urban versus rural hunting rights had died down in recent years.
"Whoever is raising this spectre again from the dead ought to be jumped on. We need to remember we're all Alaskans, we're working together. We're working for the best interest of the state and we need to sit down and talk," Ross said.
Even Native lawmakers said Ross is likely to be confirmed when the Legislature votes on him April 16. His appointment must be approved by a majority of the legislators meeting in joint session.
While calls and e-mails are coming into the offices of state legislators, most seem reluctant to oppose him and some are enthusiastic in their support.
"While Wayne is a flamboyant and oft-controversial figure, I truly believe that in this role I think the public and many of the political players in this building will be very pleasantly surprised at his competence and his ability to serve in this office," said Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker, who has fought Palin on other issues.
Ross is known for driving around Anchorage in a red Hummer with a personalized tag of his initials, "WAR." He's also a director of the National Rifle Association. Wasilla Republican Sen. Charlie Huggins said he was at a gun show at the Palmer fairgrounds last weekend and people were enthusiastic about Ross.
"It's always been my perspective that unless there's some really big skeletons in a person's closet the governor deserves her choice," Huggins said.
Leaders among the urban Democrats aren't picking a side yet. House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, said she's heard some "really grave concerns" about Ross but wants to do her own research on his positions before saying how she'll vote on the confirmation. Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, said he's also not set on what he is going to do.
But Rep. Woodie Salmon, a Democrat from the village of Chalkyitsk, said Ross is "totally anti-subsistence" and that is a fundamental value in rural Alaska. The Alaska Federation of Natives board has talked about bringing the subsistence issue back into the public arena by trying to put it on the ballot. But Ross's appointment could be a sign that would be a futile attempt, its co-chair said.
"To me the governor is sending a message that she's shutting the door on any question on subsistence -- as long as Wayne Anthony Ross is her attorney general, I don't even think we'll have the chance to talk to him about it," Towarak said.
Ross doesn't like it when people say he's against the rural preference for subsistence.
"Quit saying I was 'opposed to,' he said. "I was in favor of the constitution. There's a difference. The constitution says the assets belong to all the people of the state of Alaska. ... I'm going to stand up for all Alaskans, and for the constitution and if people want to be treated differently than other Alaskans, it's probably going to be opposed."
Heather Kendall-Miller, a Native American Rights Fund attorney in Anchorage, said Palin picked an attorney general that represents her values rather than the most qualified person. She said it reflects more on Palin than on Ross.
"She's shown no interest in trying to work with the Native community on important issues of subsistence or tribal sovereignty."
An example of the sovereignty issue: Should tribal governments be able to decide the fate of children in their communities, by placing at-risk kids with other families within the tribe.
"If that issue comes up, we're going to study it," Ross said. "But I haven't taken a position on any of that stuff yet. I've been on the job ... less than six hours."
Ross is a member of Alaska Outdoor Council, a collection of sportsmen's groups. AOC executive director Rod Arno said Tuesday that Ross is "pro-Alaska," not "anti-Native.
"He believes strongly in the statehood act and state sovereignty. I think that's going to be a big plus for all Alaskans -- it doesn't have to be a Native, non-Native issue," Arno said.