Alaska Natives bring unique issues to Senate

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WASHINGTON - As part of ongoing hearings before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about the priorities of Indian country, representatives of Alaska Natives provided a unique perspective with issues ranging from subsistence hunting and fishing to health care.

Problems faced by Alaska Natives are at times similar to those faced by tribes outside Alaska, but many are different because of their legal rights and relationships with the state and federal government.

Passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 marks the first major differences in the treatment of Alaska Native governments and those of other tribes.

Under the settlement act, tribes and villages in Alaska were divided into 13 regional and a variety of smaller village corporations established under Alaskan rather than federal charters. It directed that these corporations would be formed "without establishing any racially defined institutions, rights, privileges, or obligations, without creating a reservation system or lengthy wardship or trusteeship, and without adding to the categories of property and institutions engaged in tax privileges."

In short, Alaska's tribes and villages were dissolved by Congress and their "assets," approximately 44 million acres of property, including timber and oil, were converted into federal "domestic assets."

Despite partial amendment of the act in the late 1980s and passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the original legal structure imposed on Native Alaskans by the settlement act remained. Alaska Natives are treated much like American Indians, but the legal foundation for these rights, especially with regard to land, is much different.

For many Native groups in Alaska, subsistence hunting and fishing and its management, has become a hot topic, sparking tensions between the state and tribes. Much of the legal guidelines for subsistence are contained in the conservation act and involve cross management by the state and federal government, leading to problems for many Natives caught between inconsistent rules and regulations.

"The success of co-management in navigable waters is partially dependent upon the cooperation of both partners," said Alfred Ketzler Sr. of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. "The language in federal law at the moment is sometimes unclear or the meaning and intent is not spelled out. The resultant confusion can easily complicate an already disastrous situation."

Natives groups in Alaska are looking to better secure their rights to subsistence through improving the conservation act. They are also even looking at the possibility of one day working as co-managers with the state and federal government.

"Congress should require that federal agencies and the state contract to Native institutions, particularly to tribes and tribal consortia, as many subsistence management functions as are feasible and proper, and that such delegated functions of co-management include effective roles in the regulatory process itself and in enforcement on the ground, not just for counting fish runs, gathering soil samples, and monitoring harvests," Ketzler said.

While laws like the two acts set Alaska Natives apart, programs involving health care, education, and infrastructure are just as important to them as to all tribes. Many of Alaska's Native people are seeing the same shortfalls in funding and program availability as other American Indian people.

Priorities outlined by witnesses at the hearing included: broadening the application of self-governance, reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, full funding for Indian Reservation Roads and full funding of contract support costs.

The Committee has heard from the National Congress of American Indians and the United South and Eastern Tribes. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, vice chairman of the committee, assured tribes that all concerns and views would be considered and that other witnesses and organizations would be asked to testify at hearings in the coming weeks.