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Alaska Rep. Don Young remembered for strong support of Natives

Alaska Rep. Don Young speaks during a Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska function. (Photo via Facebook)

Don Young, the longest serving Republican in the history of Congress, died March 18 at 88. Many in Indian Country are remembering the Alaska Congressman for his strong support for Alaska Natives and other Indigenous peoples on several issues, including land rights, health care and social programs

“He was a champion for Alaska tribes in many ways, including [support for the Violence Against Women’s Act], transportation, Alaska Native veterans, and Southeast Alaska landless tribes,” the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska tweeted.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that Young lost consciousness on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle and could not be resuscitated. His wife, Anne, was reportedly by his side. Young had served in Congress since 1973.

Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), described Young as a strong supporter of tribal sovereignty with a “fierce commitment” to backing issues important to Indian Country.

“For decades, Congressman Young courageously stood alongside Native peoples and, with deep honor and mutual respect, dedicated time to learning about the pressing issues that must be addressed to ensure the well-being of all tribal nations,” Sharp said in a statement March 19.

Congressman Tom Cole (Chickasaw Nation) described Young as a friend, mentor and role model who vigorously supported Indigenous rights.

“Don’s first wife was a Native Alaskan,” Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, said in a statement. “No one in the House did more to advance the cause of Indigenous peoples than Don. He was knowledgeable about their issues and sympathetic to their cause. He was a fierce defender of tribal sovereignty, treaty rights and the federal trust responsibility.”

Young supported the nomination of Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) for Interior Secretary in 2021. In 2020, Young, Cole and Haaland, who was a Congresswoman at the time, partnered on the Progress for Indian Tribes Act aimed at streamlining the Interior Department’s process for approving self governance compacts and annual funding agreements for Indian programs. The trio also sponsored a bill to help tribes establish or increase their buffalo herd populations.

Following the news of Young’s death, Haaland tweeted that Young became one of her most valued friends and mentors during her freshman term in Congress.

“As Dean of the House, Mr. Young taught all of us how to love the people and the states that we represent. Everything he did, every day, was for Alaska and its people, whom he loved dearly. He leaves us a tremendous legacy of bipartisanship in service of the greater good,” she said.

According to his online biography, Young’s early career included teaching a fifth grade elementary class at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Fort Yukon. He began his political career as the mayor of Fort Yukon in the mid-1960s. His 49 years of service in Congress is the ninth-longest tenure ever.

In January, Young introduced legislation aimed at helping Alaska Native elders.

“Our elders are a rich source of history and tribal tradition; we must provide them with the support necessary to continue playing their crucial roles in their communities,” Young said in a statement at the time. “Elders frequently receive benefits from their village corporations, representing a critical source of income to help elders meet their basic needs. Too often, these community benefits disqualify elders from receiving support through federal programs, and very frankly, that is wrong…I have introduced legislation to ensure that elders who may need a little extra assistance to make ends meet are not disqualified because of their settlement trust income.”

Young also proposed legislation to transfer property to the Tanana Tribal Council, recognize Alexander Creek as a Native Village, and direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to convey property in Anchorage to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium for use in connection with health programs.

“Standing with our Alaska Native communities does not stop with federal recognition; we must ensure that our Native groups have possession of and access to land, including lands that they have utilized for centuries. It is my honor to partner with several Alaska Native groups in the fight for federal land use rights,” Young said.

President Joe Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff March 19 in honor of Young.

“There is no doubt that few legislators have left a greater mark on their state,” Biden said in a statement. “Don’s legacy lives on in the infrastructure projects he delighted in steering across Alaska. In the opportunities he advanced for his constituents. In the enhanced protections for Native tribes he championed. His legacy will continue in the America he loved.”

Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is senior editor. He has worked for The Seminole Tribune since 2014. He was previously an editor, photographer and reporter for newspapers in Southwest Florida and Connecticut. Contact Kevin at