WASHINGTON - Three riders that would regionalize programs and give funding to the state of Alaska instead of the Alaska Villages and tribes were attached to bills by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
The riders do not require the necessity of a hearing or consultation with the tribes and would give money to the state to run tribal law enforcement or court systems and would also regionalize Native American Housing and Self Determination Act funds.
Alaska has 227 recognized tribes and because of the numbers Sen. Stevens told a group of reporters in Anchorage, Alaska that there was not enough money to go around.
That led to the contentious comments about sovereignty and claims that outside groups were attempting to push Alaska Native Villages into the area of sovereignty.
"The road they're on now is the road to the destruction of statehood, because the Native population is increasing at a much greater rate than the non-Native population. I don't know if you realize that.
"And they want to have a total jurisdiction over anything that happens in a village without regard to state law and without regard to federal law," Sen. Stevens said during an Alaska Public Radio broadcast.
The interpretation is that because the tribes exist and flourish they are a threat to the state, and some tribal advocates have labeled Stevens' comments as racist.
Stevens' staff had no comment on Oct. 14, and questions submitted to the senator by e-mail were not answered by press time.
Leading the opposition to Stevens' riders and state's rights movement is Heather Kendall Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
"Some of the things that the senator is attacking are the reasons why the system currently in place is working. It's good government at the local level," Kendall Miller said.
"Stevens sees tribal government as overreaching its authority and is trying to regionalize all federal money for efficiency," she said.
She added that Stevens' approach is to limit the ability of the tribes to function and to de-list the Alaska tribes from the federal list. Kendall Miller said that Stevens spoke with Secretary of Interior Gale Norton about this issue, but she offered no further details.
Alaska has 40 percent of the federally recognized tribes and a move to terminate would be felt through the lower 48 as well, she said.
During his comments on Alaska Public Radio Stevens referred to a group that was pushing for tribal sovereignty in Alaska, but refused to name the organization. A Stevens' staff member, who wished not to be named, suggested it was NARF or the work of one woman, Kendall Miller, that was pushing for sovereignty in Alaska.
Members of the Council of Land Large Based Tribes, a coalition of Great Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes and the Navajo Nation agreed that self governance tribes may also be the group Stevens is referring to. Leaders of the self-governance tribes in the Rocky Mountain region were in Washington attending hearings and did not return phone calls.
At a recent meeting in Rapid City, S.D. the CLLBT members, when asked, were certain that the action by Stevens was part of the Bush Administration's attempt to get out of the "Indian business," and some went so far as to mention conspiracy.
Stevens said that the group had gone from village to village informing the people they were entitled to a housing organization with a manager and planner. He added that one area was found in Alaska, it was funded and no houses were built in four years.
An amendment to the NAHASDA Act of 1996 would direct the secretary to give funds to Alaska Tribal Housing authorities and the allocations would be based on the need for assistance for affordable housing.
Inserted language into the NAHASDA Act would provide that appropriations be awarded to a "statewide organization comprised of and representing Alaska tribal housing authorities." Also funds would go to a national organization representing Native American Housing interests. Tribes would apply for the grants from those organizations, according to Stevens' amendments.
A rider attached to the Justice and Interior fiscal year 2004 appropriations bill would make funds available for courts or police at Native villages to be distributed by the state to the various villages. As a baseline, funds from fiscal year 2003 would be increased by the consumer price index for fiscal year 2004 the rider states.
The funds are to be delivered in that manner until such time that consolidation or any other means of distribution of funds becomes more efficient, the rider states.
Also in the Interior appropriations bill the language specific to Alaska on distribution of funds for alcohol control, enforcement, prevention, treatment, sobriety and wellness would be distributed regionally.
"This is a major shift in policy and should not be done through the rider process," Kendall Williams said. She added that if this is to become the new policy, then field hearings and consultations should take place. Under the rider system of introducing legislation, no hearings or debate is necessary with Congress.
Opponents of Stevens' legislation and remarks argue that he is not only making racist remarks, he is asserting that the existence of Native villages and tribes in Alaska is a threat to state sovereignty.
Stevens' chief of staff, David Russell, said that the senator's comments were taken out of context. What Stevens meant, Russell said, was that if the tribes were to achieve sovereign status it would lead to more claims for the creation of tribes and an increase in tribal courts and would bring about more questions of jurisdiction.
"The more confusion there is, the more uncertainty, the less successful the state's legal system will be," Russell told the Anchorage Daily News.