Manokotak man honored as AFN Citizen of the Year
The main person responsible for changes to voting ballots was honored by the Alaska Federation of Natives this month.
At the annual gathering, held this year in Fairbanks, Manokotak's Mike Toyukak was honored with the organization's "Citizen of the Year" award for his work prompting the state of Alaska to provide Native language support for Alaska voters.
With help from the Native American Rights Fund, Toyukak and others sued the State of Alaska in 2013, asserting that speakers with limited English proficiency were due more language assistance when they went to the polls. In 2015, the lawsuit was settled. And in August, when Toyukak went to the Manokotak City Office to cast his vote in the primary election, he had the opportunity to look over a sample ballot in Yup'ik before he made his final decision. Had he wanted it, a translator was on-hand, and poll workers had a glossary of election terms in Yup'ik to help navigate the ballot as well.
Those provisions popped up at polling places throughout the state, and for speakers of six dialects of Yup'ik and of Gwich'in. Some additional work is planned for the November general election.
AFN and others have credited Toyukak with prompting the changes.
Toyukak was nominated for the award by Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott wrote a letter of support.
"Mike Toyukak moved the state of Alaska in the right direction. His courage and conviction has made a difference in the lives of thousands of rural voters and I support BBNC's nomination," he wrote in the Oct. 3 letter.
For his part, in August, Toyukak shared that credit with his wife Anecia, and with the lawyers who helped take the case when they heard he felt there was an injustice in his community. Although not named as a plaintiff, she was by his side throughout the process, and also involved in the state's effort to develop the Yup'ik glossary of elections terms.
Through an interpreter in Manokotak on Aug. 16, Toyukak said he was glad to see changes go into effect and help encourage people in his region to vote by making it more accessible. When the ballot was harder to understand, people were less likely to go vote, he said.
"When people heard (about the changes) they got a lot more excited to be part of the process," Dillingham's Joe Chythlook explained for Mike Toyukak. "Knowing that they understand better what they're voting for, and understanding that it's a process that they could use to address Native concerns, not just the white man's concerns. So it's good for the area, good for the village, good for the people."
Chythlook himself also gave kudos to Toyukak at the time. He is the chair of the Bristol Bay Native Corp.'s board of directors, and said he thought Toyukak had performed a vital service to the community.
BBNC's nomination of Toyukak echoed that, and the AFN award validated it.
So did Mallott, who praised Toyukak in a statement following the announcement of the award.
"I knew that we could not begin our journey to make Alaska's election process one of the best in the country until this case was settled," he wrote. "I was in the village of Manokotak, where Mike and his wife Anecia live, on primary election day in August. It was wonderful to see voters with full access to bilingual workers and ballots."
Toyukak has also said he thinks there is more work to be done, and as he traveled throughout the region on primary day, said he wanted to see future improvements to ensure even better voting access for his peers.