HOW did the traditionally Democratic Alaska-native community, a group struggling for economic and cultural survival in the Arctic north, learn to respect and trust a Republican senator with a reputation for abruptness? The answer may explain why Ted Stevens is emerging as a highly qualified, though politically unlikely, candidate for majority leader of the Senate.
Alaska natives have had an enormously difficult 10 years as all Alaskans have learned to live with massive change, change provoked by the 1971 Native Claims Settlement Act. The legislation turned the more than 70,000 Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts in the state into shareholders in business corporations with all the trappings and problems of corporate America.
The burdens and complexities - and the possibility of conflict - have been great. The non-natives in Alaska were very suspicious of what was occurring, as they still are today. The miners in the state were apprehensive about the effect of large-scale native entities controlling substantial pieces of land that might have potential for natural resources. With the new economics of the native settlement, environmental groups feared that the traditional alliances between native groups and conservationists would break apart.
Time after time, Alaskans have been at loggerheads with one another. And, in this very difficult place and time, one that mirrors many of the conflicts of our republic, Senator Stevens has been able to achieve helpful compromise.
Several weeks ago, Stevens won over 70 percent of the vote in Alaska, a state that often finds little else on which to agree.
Alaska natives do not agree with all aspects of the senator's philosophy of government. But the senator's sense of fairness, of concern that government help move along the aspirations of the community, of melding together competing interests - all these are qualities that we admire and which would be valuable in a majority leader.