Byron Mallott: ‘My friend, we also have lived life fully, made a few contributions’

May 21, 2020

Then-Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott participates in the canoe landing ceremonies that unofficially kick off Celebration in Juneau on June 5, 2018. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

When Byron Mallott died on May 8, 2020, memories and condolences from leaders poured in across the state and beyond.

Mallott was most recently known as Alaska’s lieutenant governor, but his greatest legacy was likely shaping generations of Alaska Natives through political and corporate leadership.

Byron Mallott was born in Yakutat on April 6, 1943. He was Tlingit of the Raven moiety and a clan leader of the Kwaashk’i Ḵwáan.

In an interview on the KTOO-TV program “Conversations” in 1985, Mallott briefly recounted being sent away to Pius X Mission, a Catholic boarding school in Skagway.

“From the time we were 13 years old, we were essentially summer visitors at home,” he said.

The boarding school system was a government-backed effort to scrub indigenous people of their culture and force assimilation. His former chief of staff as lieutenant governor, Claire Richardson, remembers Mallott saying he had a stutter in those days.

“And he told me that he developed that stutter while attending boarding school as a child. And so he learned to think of what he was going to say ahead of time, as if there was a teleprompter in his head,” Richardson said. “Byron had the uncanny ability to speak eloquently and passionately without the use of notes or cue cards.”

His son Anthony Mallott said his dad was the class president, but got expelled after sticking up for another student.

Mallott ended up at Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka, where he graduated high school. His son said thinking of those days, playing basketball and making friends, always made his dad smile.

Mallott highlighted those relationships in a different light in his 1985 interview.

“You began to build a network of acquaintances and friends, principally Native, because those were Native schools largely, from throughout the region,” he said.

After high school, he went to Western Washington University in Bellingham. But he didn’t finish college because his father, the longtime mayor of Yakutat, died. He went home to help his mother, and successfully ran for mayor himself when he was 22 years old.

“You just kind of grow up with a sense that, if there are things happening in the community, if there are issues, you know, somehow, you ought to be involved,” Mallott said. “I mean, that was always there for us and I think everything else was a natural progression of that kind of family attitude.”

Mallott didn’t finish his term, because he took what he called a “low-level staff” job in the state agency that eventually became the Division of Community and Regional Affairs. It required a lot of travel and meeting a lot of local officials, which is how he met two other foundational figures who helped unite Alaska Natives around a statewide political identity: Emil Notti and Willie Hensley.

“We’ve actually known each other for almost 55 years,” said Hensley. He’s one of the founders of the Alaska Federation of Natives, which successfully lobbied Congress for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Byron Mallott, left, and Willie Hensley pose for a photo at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island in August 2019. The longtime friends first met in October 1966 when the Alaska Federation of Natives was first organizing. (Photo by James Umiivik Hensley)

“We met in 1966 when we were first organizing the Alaska Federation of Natives. … And when we were organizing AFN, we all kind of announced ourselves. And of course, we’re all there representing some of the different tribes around. And he said he represented the state of Alaska, and we kicked him out!” Hensley said laughing. “‘Cause, we didn’t want the state to know what our strategy was, right? On this — what was going to be the battle of the century over who owned Alaska.”

Hensley said they later let Mallott in, but as a representative of the Five Chiefs of the Yakutat.

ANCSA’s passage in 1971 established Native corporations. Mallott became a founding board member of Southeast Alaska’s regional corporation, Sealaska, and its top executive in the 1980s.

In 1985, Sealaska was the biggest of the Native corporations. He explained how creating the corporations served as more than a one-time payout.

“The benefits of the claims settlement act shouldn’t benefit just a single generation of Native people. That there ought to be a way to maintain the corpus — the land and the money — in mechanisms that would allow them to be used to flow, the continuing benefits of ANCSA, through succeeding generations. That the accident of history shouldn’t determine who participated in ANCSA.”

Hensley said there is a specific piece of ANCSA that was very contentious but has since led to the pooling and sharing of billions of dollars among Native corporations. Hensley said Mallott was instrumental in negotiating this revenue sharing part of the law, sometimes referred to as 7(i).

Mallott oversaw the creation and growth of a Sealaska shareholders’ permanent fund and a corporate investment portfolio worth over $100 million, according to an old professional biography on file at the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.

Mallott was appointed to relatively new permanent fund corporation  in 1982. He retired from the Sealaska executive position in 1992, but stayed on the board until 2014. He became the Permanent Fund Corp.’s top executive in 1995. He had a stint in the ’90s as the mayor of Juneau, too.

More recently, Mallott ran for governor. He won the Alaska Democratic Party’s nomination in 2010 and 2014. He didn’t win, but became lieutenant governor in the second run by merging his campaign with independent candidate Bill Walker.

Mallott’s message at the time was that joining Walker’s nonpartisan campaign was what was right for Alaska. Four years later, he resigned abruptly after making what Walker called inappropriate comments.

Claire Richardson, his chief of staff, said the circumstances of his resignation shouldn’t overshadow his life. She said, there’s a lesson in taking immediate responsibility for your actions.

“To know that there are men who make mistakes, and the ones who actually own up to it are the ones that I think we can look at and remember not just that moment, but the 50 years of public service and the good that he did for so many people” she said.

Mallott died after a heart attack on May 8, 2020.

Just the day before, Hensley had been texting Mallott about mourning another friend.

“And Byron’s response was, ‘My friend, we also have lived life fully, made a few contributions and are still going strong! I hope that is a good thing.’ … And now he’s gone. It’s so sad.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered U.S. and Alaska flags to half-staff for a week, through sunset Friday, May 15.

He is survived by his wife, Antoinette, four siblings, five children and their families.

Mallott’s family doesn’t have plans for memorial services yet because of the pandemic. Anthony Mallott said his father would have wanted fun and memory-filled events in Yakutat, Juneau and Anchorage. The family has set up a memorial fund in his name through the Juneau Community Foundation. Mallott’s family said condolences may be sent to the home address, 102 Cordova Street in Juneau.