JUNEAU, Alaska - Tribal-state relations is a serious issue for Alaska's Native people. It should be, since the state of Alaska does not officially recognize there are any tribes in the state, while the Department of Interior says there are some 223 federally recognized tribes in Alaska alone.
The situation here is an extreme example of what has become in an important issue for tribes throughout the United States, but it is an example which has rallied many tribes to address the important issue of how tribes and states should work together.
"In 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act extinguished our Aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, leaving us with only promises that, I'm sorry to say, the state has yet to live up to," said Mike Williams, chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council. "It is painful for us to think about these events because they took place in most cases, without tribal knowledge, tribal input and certainly without tribal consent."
The continuing struggle of tribes in Alaska, and their attempts to build true government-to-government relations with the state, is the driving force behind this year's midyear session of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
The theme of the session in Juneau June 25-28, was "Tribal-State Partnerships: Models of Cooperation in Government." It was not only inspired by recent efforts of Alaska's tribal governments to develop more productive relations with the state, but by the growing perception that tribal and state governments around the country are increasingly finding areas of mutual interest. They are exploring ways to set aside jurisdictional disputes in favor of cooperative agreements and government-to-government relationships that respect the sovereignty of both states and tribes.
"When tribes and states sit down and work together it naturally helps build better relationships," said Mervin Hess, council member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe in California. "There has been so much head-butting, but states are coming around now because of gaming."
This movement has been driven by gaming and requirements of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) that states and tribes enter into mutual contracts or compacts on operation of gaming enterprises on tribal lands. It also is driven by the increasing exercise of self-determination by the tribes and the new political development of "devolution."
Devolution is part of a national trend by many policymakers to move decision-making power from central to local governments. Since the mid 1990s, the federal government has been devolving power to local governments, believing that policy is best made at the smallest level of government. The Republican Party's "Contract with America" and welfare reform are all parts of devolution in the American political system.
With this combination of devolution and tribes asserting their sovereign rights in an ever-increasing fashion, in 638 contracting, gaming, land management, and even welfare reform, states and tribes have been forced to reassess political relationships.
They are becoming more and more involved in each other's business and policies. Prior to the 1990s, most tribal governments rarely dealt with state governments, keeping their relationships primarily federal. Now they deal with a wide range of issues from gaming compacts, taxation, and law enforcement to nuclear waste disposal, off-reservation fishing, and foster care.
While this has allowed for better relationships and mutually beneficial results, it created highly contentious situations and serious concerns for tribal leaders.
"I disapprove of devolution," said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota. "It gives the states all the power and serves the federal-tribal relationship. It's fine for the states and local governments, but it hasn't taken the tribes into consideration. We wind up being pushed into many of these agreements when we shouldn't have to be."
Hall says the state of North Dakota has been illegally collecting state taxes from his tribe for the sale of motor fuels. Recently, he was asked to sign an accord with the state which hoped to put into writing some of the new trends in tribal-state relations. He refused, citing the state's actions with regard to illegal taxation.
"They do not have the authority or the jurisdiction," Hall said. "If we sign the accord, we would be approving that action."
While Hall and other tribal leaders are wary of new ground in tribal-state relations, he said he believes it is important to work with the states on some levels.
"We need to continue to work with the states because we are also citizens of the state. We have to educate the states about the tribes, our legal status, our ideas on how to work through impediments, and show other states and tribes examples of good working relationships. After all we are neighbors."
It is this type of thinking and concern that was brought forward by many during the meeting. Tribes are wary of diminishing sovereign rights and the federal-tribal relationship ensconced in the U.S. Constitution and federal law. But they are also conscious of the fact they must work with the states to build a more positive environment for their people and a less divisive atmosphere at home.
Tribal representatives left the meeting armed with better ways to resolve tribal-state issues and a better understanding of the factors in play when dealing with these relationships.