Two years before the Columbine massacre, a school shooting on Feb. 19, 1997, left two people dead and two wounded in the remote village of Bethel on Alaska’s southwest coast.
For Tiffany Zulkosky, then a middle-school student in Bethel and today a freshman member of the Alaska House of Representatives, the events of that day and the widespread news coverage that followed were deeply disturbing and remain fixed in her memory.
“It was a very formative moment,” she recalls. “It opened my eyes to current events, which I hadn’t had much interest in before, but even more so to the negative perceptions of the outside world about Native communities like Bethel, which in reality are so resilient and beautiful and tight-knit.”
Zulkosky’s mother is a sixth-generation Minnesotan who headed to Alaska for a summer vacation after graduating from high school, wound up taking a job for a regional air carrier and eventually put down roots in Bethel, where she built a career as a social worker. Zulkosky’s late father, a Yup’ik Eskimo, was a commercial fisherman and seasonal carpenter.
In high school, Zulkosky excelled academically, became “a nerdy journalism kid” and went on to earn a degree in communications at Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash. Just before she graduated in 2006, there was another formative moment: an opportunity to participate in the inaugural Conference of Young Alaskans, which brought together hundreds of people, ages 16 to 25, from across the state to discuss their concerns and aspirations.
A Turning Point
“Hearing people talk about issues in communities like mine and seeing it through the lens of equity and inequity—that was a turning point for me,” she says. “I came away from that experience knowing that our communities deserved better.”
Not long after, Zulkosky returned to Bethel, where she began working for a nonprofit job-training organization, the People’s Learning Center, and campaigned for an open seat on the Bethel City Council on the theme of “New Generation, New Perspective.” A year into her term, her fellow councilmembers selected her to serve as mayor.
Hearing people talk about issues in communities like mine and seeing it through the lens of equity and inequity—that was a turning point for me.” —Representative Tiffany Zulkosky
Bethel, located about 400 miles west of Anchorage, serves as the hub community for a region roughly the size of Oregon that’s home to 25,000 predominantly Alaska Native residents living in small villages accessible only by air. The cost of living is high—$10 for a gallon of milk—and because so much of the land in rural Alaska is owned by the federal government, the tax base is too small to support the development of roads, water and sewer systems and other vital infrastructure.
As mayor, Zulkosky had the opportunity to travel to Juneau to meet with legislators and other state officials, which led to what she describes as “an interesting hodge-podge of experiences.”
After working for two years as an advisor to then-U.S. Senator Mark Begich (D), she was hired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to manage 43 rural development programs throughout western Alaska. In 2013, she became executive director of Nuvista Light and Electric Cooperative, where she oversaw projects ranging from an electrical microgrid to a regional energy plan. She also began work on a master’s degree in public administration, which she completed in 2015. For the last four years, she has served as vice president of communications for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. in Bethel, which administers a comprehensive health care system in 58 rural communities.
In 2018, the state legislator for her district stepped down, and Zulkosky decided to make a bid for the seat. She won, and this fall is running for a second term.
Putting a Focus on Tribal Affairs
The only Alaska Native woman serving in the House, Zulkosky is something of a rising star, with a professional background that has prepared her well for membership on the Energy, Education and Environmental Conservation committees and for her role as chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee.
In 2019, Zulkosky, a Democrat, was selected by the Majority Caucus—a coalition of Republicans and Democrats who run the House—to chair a special panel on tribal affairs. She sees it as “an environment to focus on and raise the level of dialogue on issues that matter in rural Alaska, and to establish creative partnerships with tribal communities.” Over the last year, the committee has held hearings on topics ranging from public safety to land claims and treaty obligations.
One of her top priorities, she says, is “making sure all communities have the level of resources they need to thrive. Not all regions of Alaska have the same starting line, and that has to be taken into account.”
Zulkosky doesn’t consider herself “a natural politician,” shying away from legislative receptions and the like in favor of solitary activities such as hiking, working on beaded jewelry and “binge-watching trashy TV shows.” She rents an apartment in Juneau during sessions but spends the rest of the year in Bethel, where she "can focus on keeping good relationships with our home communities and continuing to be my authentic self.”
Zulkosky says what drives her is a sense of public service.
“There’s a passion within me for the work I do that tends to be fed by a little bit of idealism, but making systemic change also requires knowledge," she says. "I really believe to be truly successful we must learn what we need to know but remain emotionally inspired by our work.”
Suzanne Weiss is a Denver-based freelancer and frequent contributor to State Legislatures magazine.
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