Currently the state of Alaska does not recognize Tribes the same way as the federal government or states in the Lower 48 do. A measure in the state House would amend state law to officially recognize most Tribes of Alaska.
Advocates say that pushing for that formal recognition is about changing the relationship between the state and Tribes.
House Bill 123 would change state law so that Alaska officially recognized Tribes in the state in the same way that the federal government does.
The federal government recognizes 229 Tribes in Alaska. Tribes is a general term used to the incorporation of Native nations, bands, pueblos, communities and Native villages.
One of them is the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Chalyee Éesh Peterson is president.
“It’s somewhat ironic to be asking for recognition but we know it’s so important in our day-to-day business for Tribes.”
Peterson spoke to the House Special Committee meeting on Tribal Affairs (on March 4, 2021). There are 574 federally recognized Tribes in the U.S.
“I think it’s not lost on many of us that those Tribes here in Alaska making up half of the Tribes in the United States are still struggling to be recognized here.”
Recognition -- is a complicated concept that could be a whole story in itself -- but it’s easiest to understand as something that would give the state more flexibility and opportunities to partner with Tribes.
If passed, the bill could provide jurisdiction to the Tribes over its citizenship, residence, and over water and land ownership -- as well as a "legislative jurisdiction of the United States over an area to which legislative jurisdiction is ceded by the state and that remains in the ownership of the United States.
It’s helpful to think of this jurisdiction not as a physical boundary that Tribes would have control of -- but as an added layer of local governmental control.
Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake (Haida/Tlingit/Ahtna) is director of the Alaska Native Policy Center at First Alaskans Institute. Blake also spoke before the Tribal Affairs Committee. She says that three sovereigns are at work in the United States – federal, the states and Tribes.
This issue of sovereignty is thorny. A lot of people tend to think that expanding Tribal sovereignty will diminish the power of the state and federal governments.
Blake says it’s actually an opportunity to strengthen the relationships between Tribes, the state and federal government -- and for Tribes to provide more services and bring more funding into the state for things that both want to accomplish.
“These institutions are all providing services to citizens of the United States, and citizens of the state and citizens of our Tribal nations. Services that are complementary to each other. Services that we know can go that much further by working together and finding opportunities to streamline how we operate in this state.”
Another barrier to the state’s recognition of Tribal sovereignty is that a lot of people tend to think that there’s a hierarchy. That one government has more control or authority than another.
La Quen Náay Liz Medicine Crow (Haida/Tlingit, from Keex Kwaan, or Kake) is president and chief executive officer of First Alaskans Institute and she says -- that’s not true.
“When it comes to being able to come together nation-to-nation and make agreements that is a place of not only coming to critical decisions that need to be made, but it is a place of nation-building. And for Alaska that’s something we could have here as well -- A place to build a better state.”
So far the measure would not recognize non-federally recognized Tribes, such as:
- the Qutekcak Native Tribe in Seward,
- the Knugank Tribal Council near Dillingham in the Bristol Bay region; or
- the so-called five Landless Tribes in Southeast Alaska: Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs, Ketchikan and Haines.
So, what is the state doing right now? Well, instead of recognizing Tribes and Tribal organizations and sovereigns -- and letting them have local control over certain services -- the state signs contracts or compacts with them.
It’s best to think of contracts as agreements between two or a small group of parties, with the expectations to deliver goods or services by accomplishing X, Y, and Z -- and it usually comes with a deadline.
But while contracts are legally binding agreements, Tribal organization leaders like Medicine Crow say contracting limits and constrains Tribal service providers too much.
“You’re getting the result that you pay for when it comes to contracting. Because the bar for success is held onto so tightly that they cannot do what they really need to do and there’s so much tight control and wanting to have power and control over it that in fact it’s suffocating the system from being able to achieve what is possible in provision and public service to our communities and public safety in our communities.”
The other avenue of government-to-government relations between Tribes and the states are compacts.
Through compacts with the state, Tribes help fund services by leveraging federal money -- money that the state may not have access or capacity to deliver.
Nicole Borromeo is general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest statewide Native organization in Alaska. Borromeo broke down the importance of compacts and how they can benefit Tribes and the state during Tribal Affairs Committee meeting testimony, March 16, 2021.
(Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Nicole Borromeo's name. This story has been updated to reflect the correct change.)
“A compact will also deliver services in a more efficient manner. When you’re dealing with a state the size of Alaska -- that is the landmass of 19 smaller states in the Lower 48 -- the state of Alaska, with all do respect, will never be able to provide constitutionally mandated services that is required to out in every corner of the state. However, you do have local Tribal governments as well as local city governments that are spread out throughout the state that the state could partner with in the delivery of those services.”
Areas of opportunities for compacting include in child welfare, education, public safety as well as transportation.
Tribes, the state and the federal government often legally spar over jurisdictions.
Most recently the Metlakatla Indian Reserve sued the state in federal court in regards to fishing rights. And the state sued the federal government for giving Tribes optional out-of-season hunting rights -- out of concerns for food scarcity and security during the early months of the pandemic.
Alaska Native Policy Center director Blake says that a closer relationship -- one based on mutual respect as equals -- would limit the amount of times that legal action is necessary.
“Alaska is consistently challenging the rights of our Tribes, but if we had that consistent Tribes exist, Tribes are here and Tribes are doing the solid work that the state of Alaska cannot do in times of budget crisis, that they cannot do in times of budget abundances. We know that the Tribes are often filling the role that is often lacking in our communities from the state of Alaska. So there’s a beautiful opportunity to have those conversations with our communities. And ensure the decisions we are making are hand-in-hand.”
Bethel Democratic Representative Tiffany Zulkosky sponsored the House Bill 123. Zulkosky also chairs the Alaska House special committee on Tribal Affairs.
Democratic representatives Jonathon Kreiss-Tomkins and Harriet Drummond co-sponsored HB 123.
Versions of similar measures have been introduced in previous legislative sessions, but none have passed. However, advocates are hopeful HB 123 can gain enough support among Alaska lawmakers to pass.