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Eklutna Class II gaming hopes bring backlash for Alaska Natives

WASHINGTON - A Class II gaming application by the Alaska Native government of Eklutna Village has revived long-standing efforts in the state Legislature to revisit federal recognition of tribes in Alaska.

Two Republican state legislators sent a May 1 letter to Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, suggesting that he ''review the legal basis of Alaska's 'purported' tribes'' before ruling on the Eklutna application, according to an account in the Anchorage Daily News. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin opposed the expansion of gaming in the state.

The Class II gaming application of Eklutna does not seek authority for the Class III gaming that has proved more lucrative in the contiguous 48 states. It seeks definition, by the National Indian Gaming Commission, of an Alaska Native allotment near Eklutna as ''Indian land,'' eligible for tax-exempt gaming. The legislators ask Kempthorne to determine whether any Indian land exists in Alaska and whether Alaska Native organizations are definable as tribes for purposes of gaming.

Off-record sources in Alaska and Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the tenor of debate in Alaska on Native issues generally, said Interior shows no appetite for heeding the Alaska Legislature's contentious request in the last year and a half of President George W. Bush's administration. Interior did not respond to a request for Kempthorne's reaction.

Press Secretary Kevin Sweeney provided a response from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska: ''This is not the first time that several Alaska state legislators have asked the Secretary of the Interior to determine whether Alaska Native villages were appropriately included on the list of federally recognized tribes. On all prior occasions the Secretary of the Interior has declined to re-open the matter. The decisions of Secretary Kempthorne's predecessors were legally supportable and we don't see Secretary Kempthorne reversing course, nor is Senator Murkowski encouraging him to do so.''

Two hundred and twenty-seven Alaska Native villages gained federal recognition in 1993, when then-Interior Secretary Ada Deer included them on the list of tribes so recognized. Congress has defined Alaska Native villages and organizations as Indian tribes for specific purposes in acts of Congress that include the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act and, more recently, the Violence Against Women Act. Federal agencies have also included Alaska Natives.

Don Mitchell, an attorney on retainer to the Alaska state Legislature and a scholar on Alaska Native legal status, said it is perfectly within the power of Congress to deal with Native Americans, including Alaska Natives, through legislation. He also believes that Congress must delegate the authority for a federal officer such as Deer to recognize Indian tribes. ''It's my opinion that to date, Congress has not exercised its power in that way.''

Lloyd Miller, a Native American Rights Fund attorney representing Eklutna and a longtime sparring partner of Mitchell's on Alaska Native issues, said the issue of Alaska Native legal status isn't a live one, politically or otherwise. ''I don't see it getting any traction anywhere.''

As an example, he said one of the signatories of the May 1 letter, state Senate President Lyda Green, did not sign the letter in her capacity as Senate president, but as a rank-and-file member of the statehouse. Miller said she feared losing support in the Bush Caucus, a largely Democratic group of state legislators representing the interior of Alaska, or so-called ''bush Alaska,'' home to many Alaska Native villages. (The caucus is not connected with President Bush.)

A spokesman of Green's in Wasilla, Alaska, referred all questions to a number in Juneau that was perpetually busy over a two-day period.

A few antennae twitched in Washington at the date on the letter to Kempthorne: May 1. On May 2 and 3, the House of Representatives and the Senate held meetings on the Akaka Bill, which would authorize a process eventually leading to the federal recognition of Native Hawaiians. Conservative factions in the House and Senate GOP oppose the extension of federal recognition to Native Hawaiians and hope to revoke it for Alaska Natives. But Miller and Mitchell poured cold water on the possibility of coordination, for momentum-building or other symbiotic political purposes, between the dates. Eklutna filed the application in April, and the Alaska legislative response followed in due course. ''It's a dispute between Alaskans and it has never been anything but that,'' Mitchell said.

Ted Popely, counsel to the state Legislature, did not return a voice message by press time.