Alaska: Co-owner of flightseeing business under attack for anti-Native remarks posted on Facebook

Stampede Aviation is under fire in Alaska after a pilot, also a majority owner in the business, posted disparaging remarks about Alaska natives in a Facebook group. (iStock)
Stampede Aviation is under fire in Alaska after a pilot, also a majority owner in the business, posted disparaging remarks about Alaska natives in a Facebook group. (iStock)
A pilot who is majority owner of a flightseeing business outside Denali National Park has enraged many in recent days with Facebook comments about “drunken Eskimos,” spit cups and poor hygiene.

Some want to push Brad Benson and his business, Stampede Aviation, out of Alaska. They question the ethics of a pilot whose home is in Texas making his living in Alaska by flying tourists around Denali, yet showing contempt for the Native people who named the mountain.

He posted his comments on a thread in the Bush Pilots of Alaska Facebook group in which he compared the lure of catering to tourists with his perceived negatives of Bush passengers. His remarks have since been deleted but posts with screenshots of them have been shared thousands of times.

“I cannot believe I am reading such racist remarks against Alaska Natives from a local company in Alaska,” Melanie Sauafea wrote in a post circulated more than 600 times.

“Highly don’t recommend Stampede Aviation,” Michael E. Lake wrote in sharing another post. “Highly unprofessional, racist, and a huge disrespect to not just ‘Eskimos’ but Alaskans, Americans, and just human beings.”

Some commented that they didn’t see what all the fuss was about. But most were outraged.

Company reacts

Messages left for Benson were not returned. The Stampede Facebook page stopped allowing reviews by the public since the controversy began last week.

Those views are his personal perspective, not Stampede’s, his business partner said.

“Stampede Aviation is committed to our Alaska family,” director of operations and part-owner Jordan Heckley said in an initial emailed response. “The Facebook posts circling the community do not reflect the views of our company.”

Even so, Benson is a big part of the small, Healy-based flightseeing business. He is listed on state corporate records as 90 percent owner of Valley Aviation LLC, which owns Stampede. His address is in Granbury, Texas.

The company is conducting its own investigation into what happened and what to do about it, Heckley said in a phone interview.

“To maintain the integrity of our company, we have hired outside professionals to investigate this issue and to consult us on the proper course of action,” Heckley said.

Sensitivity training sessions initiated

The flightseeing business started in 2012, Heckley said. It operates in the summer both as a charter and for tours around Denali and to Chena Hot Springs. Benson is one of two pilots in a company that employs six to 10 people in peak months, Heckley said.

“We at Stampede Aviation sincerely apologize from the bottom of our hearts to anyone that may have been hurt or felt disrespected by the lack of judgment on Brad’s behalf,” Heckley said in a followup email Wednesday evening. Earlier in the week, he said he couldn’t comment on whether the company would apologize.
Stampede has begun “mandatory sensitivity training sessions for all employees,” Heckley said. “These training sessions will cover topics such as respect for others, proper codes of conduct, and social media guidelines.”

Some of those upset have called for Stampede to lose its right to operate in Denali National Park. Its website says it obtained a “commercial use authorization” from the National Park Service in 2014. That has since expired.

The business doesn’t need a park permit as long as its planes don’t land there, said Katherine Belcher, the park’s public information officer. Stampede didn’t have a license to operate in Denali in 2016 and hasn’t applied for one in 2017, she said. Its planes can still fly over and around the mountain and park.

‘You don’t have to go to Bethel …’

On Oct. 27, Benson jumped into a discussion on the Bush Pilots of Alaska Facebook group. A pilot new to Alaska had asked about a good place to work.

“Love me some Nome and Kotz!” aviation mechanic Chris Brandon answered. “All roads still lead to Bethel.” The Southwestern Alaska hub has a busy airport with a steady stream of flights to Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages.

“I’ve got a job available in a Cherokee Six in Denali starting about May 1,” Benson chimed in. “Seasonal tourism work with tips and no natives. … You don’t have to go to Bethel if soda pop, Doritos and drunken Eskimos aren’t your thing.”

When the mechanic asked him about the “no natives” comment, Benson didn’t back off.

“First, they don’t tip. It’s transportation, not a tour,” Benson wrote on the Bush Pilots page, contrasting a flightseeing gig with working rural commuter flights.

Some of those upset read that as disparaging Native people as stingy when no one tips pilots on commercial flights.

Benson said a pilot can make more in four months flying tourists than in a full year for a Bush airline.

“They fly in worse weather, they fly far worse airplanes that are old and tired. The natives view them as a taxi and care less about appearances as long as they get from point to point,” he wrote on the thread, in one of the comments since erased. Tourists, he said, tend to be wealthy and have higher expectations.

He wrote that he wasn’t racist.

“But I will say that when doing the native flying you’ll encounter more drunks, spit cups, poor hygiene, and the like. I’ve flown tons and tons of soda and Doritos into those villages, but have never seen a toothbrush on board. Not racism…facts…unfortunately.”

‘No natives’ comment questioned

Brandon, the mechanic, said later that while Benson pointed to what some flights are like, he failed to discuss the essential nature of Bush aviation: “medical emergencies, re-uniting families, bringing youth together for spirited sports matches, bringing different cultures together all across Alaska.”

The “no natives” comment may cross a line, said Marti Buscaglia, executive director of the Alaska State Commission on Human Rights.

The commission, which investigates complaints of discrimination based on race, gender, disability and other factors, as of mid-week had not received any complaint against Stampede and couldn’t comment on any unresolved complaint, she said. It would investigate if someone brought the matter to the commission, she said.

Under state law, places that serve the public cannot make themselves unwelcome based on a person’s race, said Buscaglia, a former newspaper publisher.

Heckley, the co-owner, said Stampede is committed to diversity and “has tremendous respect for Alaska Natives.”

The company “has never refused service to anyone and strictly prohibits discrimination in service and employment,” he said. The “no natives” remark was intended to mean that Stampede operates as a charter and does not fly scheduled routes, he said.

Aviation operators need to provide service that is responsible, safe and professional – but what the Stampede owner wrote was not professional, said Lee Ryan, a pilot, chairman of the governor’s aviation advisory board and a vice president at Ryan Air, a Bush carrier started by his grandparents as Unalakleet Air Taxi in 1953.

“This guy doesn’t deserve to be a pilot in our state, let alone make a profit with his company through sightseeing and showing off our Native lands,” Ryan, who is Inupiaq, posted on Facebook.

Native people in remote villages depend on air travel more than anyone else and need carriers they can trust, he said in an interview.

The comments disappoint him. Customers will decide whether to fly with Stampede, he said.

‘Get out of my Alaska’

Dennis Davis of Shishmaref was alerted to the remarks by a pilot friend in Nome. He wrote a blistering commentary on Stampede’s business page, noting that if Benson were lost in the wild, Native people from the villages would be the first ones searching for him and the last to go home, as is their way.

Davis, who is Native and tweets as “@EskimoFixer,” a reference to his work with film crews who come to his island home to document climate change, said the pilot’s words hurt him.

“The guy needs to be accountable for his actions,” he said.

His post didn’t get much traction so he reached out to Ricko DeWilde, who is half-Athabascan, grew up on a homestead outside of Huslia and has a big Facebook following.

His post with screenshots of Benson’s comments and the Stampede page has been shared more than 1,500 times.

People hit the roof:

“Boycott his business in Denali.”

“Get out of my Alaska.”

“He doesn’t deserve business here! He should go look for tourists in Texas!!”

Day-to-day racism

The comments are a side note in a world that often seems dangerous and unjust to Alaska Native people, DeWilde said.

“We are a strong people. We hunt for our own food. We have a lot to be proud of,” DeWilde said. “But it’s very hard for young people to have the most powerful groups in America laughing at us, to come to town and get looked down on.”

Attention on the pilot’s comments shines light on deeper prejudices, said Sauafea, who is Inupiaq. Her Facebook “is out of control” after her post on Stampede, she said. She works for one of the small Bush air carriers that Benson criticized.

“He has no clue what kind of beautiful culture Alaska has to offer,” she said.

She spent her early years in Selawik and remembers ugly taunts from school kids in Anchorage who told her to go home.

“I still face racism to this day,” Sauafea said, pointing to the Stampede situation as one example.

Sauafea isn’t calling for Stampede to shut down.

“This should be a reality check for him,” she said.

On TripAdvisor, Stampede Aviation has 44 five-star reviews that described its tours as excellent and awesome, amazing and fabulous.

As of Thursday, just one reviewer gave the company a bad rating, a newly bestowed single star for “terrible.” An earlier bad review, calling out Benson for his comments, had been removed.

“Unfortunately, people make mistakes but it is our greatest hope that the people of this great land give us a chance to make it right,” Heckley said in the Wednesday email.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Lodge owner in northern Canada apologizes for racist slur in brochure, Radio Canada International

Finland:  Sámi politician calls Finland “racist country,” Yle News

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