Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Tribes exist and have the right to make their own laws and live by them. So say the U.S. Constitution and countless laws, regulations, and programs that fund tribes to exercise self-governance and tribal sovereignty.

Getting the state of Alaska to acknowledge that is the intent of a bill moving through the state legislature.

The legislation, known as House Bill 123, would require state recognition of the long-standing legal status of Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes and wouldn’t affect how tribal governments work. During the past few weeks supporters have talked about the importance of the bill at hearings before the House State Affairs and Tribal Affairs committees, and at a forum hosted by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida.

Brooke Woods, of the Athabascan community of Rampart, told the House State Affairs Committee at a hearing on Apr. 17, “by supporting this bill, you are uplifting these unique and resilient people that have been here for 10,000 years.”

Twenty years ago Rampart, on the Yukon River in Interior Alaska, was in decline. Woods said, “when I returned home from graduating high school at a boarding school, there was 10 people [in Rampart]. Our school was closed.”

The state requires a minimum of 10 students to keep a school open and Rampart had fallen below that number. The school was closed in 1998 and stayed closed for 15 years. Families moved away.

“It was not the state that reopened the school. It was the tribe,” she said. “And now my community is thriving. We have more than, I would say 80 people living there, and a vibrant school. And our elders are being taken care of. Our children are learning their traditional ways,” all due to "good tribal governance,” Woods said.

The state has not invested as much money into predominantly Native rural Alaska as in urban communities. For instance, where $2 billion was spent for urban energy projects, $1 billion went into a fund for rural energy, and some would take back even that. A third of rural communities lack any law enforcement. Dozens lack running water and flush toilets. Where able, tribes have stepped up to fill gaps.

Federal funding for services provided to their citizens is available to federally recognized tribes, which relieves some of a state’s financial burdens. And tribes with state recognition can access additional funds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

President Joel Jackson, Tlingit, of the Organized Village of Kake in Southeast Alaska, testified before both the Tribal Affairs and State Affairs committees. He said tribes can access federal funding sources and cover millions of dollars in costs the state would otherwise have to pay.

Yet, “everybody knows that the state only recognizes tribes whenever they want tribes to work with them. Then they ask tribes to relinquish part of our sovereignty. This is unacceptable to ask this when the state doesn't recognize tribes.” In an earlier testimony, he said it’s time for the state to stop picking and choosing which tribal rights it will recognize.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, Yup’ik, a Democrat representing the Yukon-Kuskokwim region in western Alaska, is chair of the House Tribal Affairs Committee. She said many policies adopted by the legislature can be traced to a lack of a solid understanding of the history of Alaska Native people, communities and tribes.

Legislators’ attitudes vary from micro-aggressions by people who may not understand they are implicitly biased, Zulkosky said, to “where somebody is blatantly aggressive in their ideology toward Alaska Native people.”

One of the effects is “tribes that consistently have the state of Alaska suing them for various issues, be it resource development or subsistence management or insert anything for the above,” she said.

Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, is Haida and Tlingit. Speaking of the “continual” lawsuits by the state against tribes, he said, “they haven't won a single lawsuit ... I'm pretty sick and tired of them wasting money and resources on these faulty lawsuits, these flawed lawsuits... this action that continues to lose the state of Alaska millions of dollars, gain us no ground and create a further divide between our citizens,” Peterson said.

Alaska has 40 percent of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Ignoring their status is undermining Alaska’s ability to thrive, said First Alaskans Institute CEO and President La Quen Náay Liz Medicine Crow, who is Haida and Tlingit. Sixty-three tribes have state recognition in 11 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We're hindering ourselves, you know? And I look forward to the day when the state finally realizes that the Native people here are not its enemy,” she said.

She cited the $2 billion state-wide Alaska tribal health system as an example of a successful partnership. It enabled the state to forego development of a statewide, comprehensive public health network, she said, yet achieve a high rate of vaccinations against COVID 19.

If the state and tribes worked hand in hand across the spectrum of public services, “Imagine,” Medicine Crow said, “what we could do with education, with transportation, with justice, with public safety, corrections, all of these services, right?”

She said state recognition would also cut down on the sometimes dramatic swings in state policy with each new governor.

“The law is clear. There are 229 Alaska Tribes and they are separate sovereigns with inherent sovereignty and subject matter jurisdiction over certain matters,” was the state’s legal opinion on the status of tribes in Alaska under former Gov. Bill Walker, who served from 2014 to 2018.

However, former Gov. Sean Parnell, who was in office from 2009 to 2014, used legislative initiatives, state policies and lawsuits to challenge tribal authority. State attorneys threw arguments against the legal bulwarks surrounding the Indian Child Welfare Act and the right of tribal courts to oversee adoptions, place children in protective custody, and to require child support. The Parnell administration lost those cases as well as lawsuits over fishing rights.

Gov. Sarah Palin, who served from 2006-2009, fought tribal adoptions too, as well as Native rights to subsistence hunting and fishing, and language assistance to Yup’ik voters.

Earlier, over the years, some governors assaulted tribal sovereignty while others partnered with tribes.

These days, Zulkosky said, the state’s approach to communications and cooperation range from non-existent to horrible to good in some areas.

“The state does have the country's first ever state tribal compact for the Alaska tribal child welfare compact, where tribes, 18 co-signers representing 161 tribes, are working in partnership with the [state] office of children's services to provide child welfare services for families,” Zulkosky said.

“But certainly the state of Alaska can do a whole lot better with consultation, so that they're not just checking off a box that ‘yes, I consulted with this tribe,’ or ‘yes, I spoke with this tribal leader,’ but really having meaningful dialogue about how state policies, regulations and laws will have impacts in tribal communities where our tribes are assisting in the governance of our state,” Zulkosky said.

When asked whether Gov. Mike Dunleavy would sign the bill if the Legislature adopts it, a spokesperson said the governor has a policy of not commenting on legislation until it has completed the legislative process and been transmitted to his office.

The Dunleavy administration has signed agreements with tribes to provide services in education, a state responsibility, for instance and does have tribal liaisons in each of its 14 departments.

However, when asked to hold consultation with a tribe over a proposed gold mine, Dunleavy said, ““We want to have genuine conversations, though, that move us from point A to point B. We just don’t want to have conversations for the sake of conversations.”

In the two House committees, representatives said state recognition is long overdue, and an important part of a long journey of healing and restoration. State Rep. Geran Tarr said she got a clear understanding of the issue when a friend told her, “tribes are sovereign, whether we want them to be or not... they just inherently are.”

Alaska state Rep. Kris-Tompkins said growing up in Sitka “like every third month there would be a government-to-government meeting with the Assembly of Sitka and the Sitka tribe,” and despite some bumps along the way, it was “very normal, and that's always worked very well in our community.”

Tanana Chiefs Conference General Counsel Natasha Singh, Koyukon Athabascan, wants to send a message of optimism and hope. “We can lead the country. We should be leading the country. We have so many tribes who have so many smart people... We've done so much without state recognition that with state recognition, we're going to just do awesome,” Singh said.

House Bill 123 has gained nine co-sponsors, eight Democrats and one unaffiliated: Representatives Zulkosky, Kreiss-Tomkins, Drummond, Spohnholz, Fields, Tarr, Ortiz (unaffiliated), Snyder, and Story. It has passed the House Tribal Affairs and State Affairs committees.

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