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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Alaska voters on Nov. 8 will get to weigh in on state recognition of tribes.  Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer Tuesday certified that an initiative sponsored by Alaskans for Better Government has enough qualified signatures to be on the ballot.

“This initiative will reinforce the bridge between our tribes and the state, one that has up to now been built on sand,” Joe Nelson, Tlingit, said in a prepared statement. Nelson is Sealaska Board chair and member of the Alaskans for Better Government Native Leaders Roundtable.

“We are ready for a solution that allows tribes to continue delivering value to all of our communities, even as state administrations change from time to time. Alaskans are ready for this common-sense collaboration,” he said.

The ballot measure application for the initiative had been submitted in August 2021 and certified by Meyer on Oct. 8, 2021. Organizers collected and on Jan. 12 submitted 56,200 signatures. Tuesday the Lt. Governor certified 47,199 qualified signatures, 11 thousand more than the necessary 36,140.

Supporters say the goal is to get the state to recognize the government-to-government relationship of the state and Alaska Native tribes, and to foster better state-tribal relations through collaboration as equal partners.

The group heading up the ballot initiative, Alaskans for Better Government, is headed by Chalyee Eesh Richard Peterson, Tlingit, Haida, and Unangan, of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska; La quen naay Liz Medicine Crow, Haida and Tlingit, head of the First Alaskans Institute; and ‘Waahlaal Gidaak Barbara Blake, Haida, Tlingit, and Ahtna, and also with First Alaskans Institute.

Alaskans for Better Government said their initiative has been officially endorsed by a number of Native and non-Native organizations, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska March On/Women’s March Movement, Alaska Black Caucus, Alaska Municipal League, and several tribes and for-profit Alaska Native corporations.

Alaska State Capitol, Juneau

Meanwhile, a bill aimed at the same goal is before the state legislature. House Bill 123, which would require state recognition of the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes, passed the Alaska house last year. More than 2 dozen of the state’s 60 legislators have signed on as bipartisan co-sponsors. Alaska’s state Legislature meets annually from January to May.

The Alaska Tribal Recognition Act would simply say the state “recognizes all tribes in the state that are federally recognized.” 

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, Yup’ik, a Democrat representing the predominantly Yup'ik Yukon-Kuskokwim region of western Alaska, introduced House Bill 123 on March 3, 2021. It passed the House on a 35-4 vote on May 19, 2021. The legislation is now before the Senate State Affairs committee.

Zulkusky told committee members the act wouldn’t give tribes new powers nor change the legal or financial relationship between tribes and the state.

As it is now, the state and tribes cooperate via compacts and contracts, and tribes bring more than a billion in federal dollars into the Alaska economy. However, she said, “it’s difficult for us in the legislature to speak about expanding our relationship with tribes, leveraging these federal dollars, when we don’t statutorily recognize their existence.”

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