Long-awaited Official Recognition by the State of the Alaska Tribes in the Legislature | Alaska Native Quarterly

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A bill granting official recognition to the native tribes of Alaska is under consideration in the Legislative Assembly. House Bill 123, sponsored by Representative Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, is in the State Senate after being approved by the State House on May 19, the last day of Regular Session 201 of the Legislative Assembly. Zulkosky chairs the Special House Committee on Tribal Affairs.

Senator Donny Olson, D-Golovin, has introduced a similar bill to the Senate, SB 108. HB 123 has not yet been assigned to state Senate committees, but it will undoubtedly travel to the Senate State Affairs Committee, where Olson’s invoice was sent. With the legislative elections at an advanced stage, it is highly likely that they will be adopted when the legislature convenes its next ordinary session in January.

HB 123 and SB 108 would not change the legal relationship between the state and the tribes, but an extremely important symbolism is at play, according to Zulkosky.

“The federal government has a special and unique relationship with the tribes that the state would officially recognize through this bill,” she said.

“While the federal government passed the necessary changes and passed the (Federal) Self-Determination and Aid to Education Act in 1975, Alaska’s statutory tribal policy is still a relic of the past. . ” Many of the struggles that Alaskan natives face today “have been reinforced by the state’s historic policy of telling its tribes that they have no status under state law,” he said. Zulkosky said.

“Despite the shared values ​​between tribes and state that seek to ensure vibrant and healthy communities, Alaska achieved statehood at a time of federal Indian politics when the federal government sought to end its relationship. trust with the tribes, forcing the tribes to give up their identity. ”she wrote. “It is time to break with this outdated policy. HB 123 serves as a first step, formalizing in law that the state of Alaska will no longer deny the existence of tribes. This is a first step towards stronger relations between Alaska and its tribes. “

There is historical support for this effort.

“The current state of the law is clear: there are 229 sovereign tribes in Alaska. Yet there continues to be misunderstandings about the existence of tribes in Alaska and their inherent sovereignty, ”former state attorney general Jahna Lindemuth wrote in 2017 in a memorandum to the government of the day. Bill Walker. “A common misconception is that the ANCSA extinguished or ended the tribes of Alaska. But ANCSA settled and extinguished tribal claims to aboriginal title; he did not turn off tribal governments. Because the ANCSA did not explicitly end the tribes of Alaska, this does not affect the status of the tribes of Alaska as sovereign governments.

The misunderstandings may have been fostered by unsuccessful, but well-publicized arguments in disputes claiming that the tribes of Alaska did not exist and lacked inherent sovereignty, Lindemuth wrote. Nonetheless, the Alaska Supreme Court rejected several direct quashing requests from John v. Baker (a founding state ruling on the legal status of tribes) and has always maintained that the tribes of Alaska exist and are sovereign governments. “Thus, there are no unresolved legal questions regarding the legal status of the tribes of Alaska as federally recognized tribal governments,” Lindemuth told Governor Walker in his memorandum.

Despite this, four Republican members of the House voted against HB 122 when it passed the House on May 19 – David Eastman, R-Wasilla; Chris Kurka, R-Wasilla; Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, and Ken McCarty, R-Eagle River – all members of the Conservative Republican minority in the House. However, a Republican from the Conservative minority in the House, Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, signed on as the bill’s co-sponsor.

Interestingly, one of the state’s major industry organizations, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, weighed in on the bill.

“Nothing in this legislation appears to relinquish the authority of the State of Alaska over particular lands, peoples or activities, create additional burdens on the state or private industry, or affect rights. Alaskan Natives as set out in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or under other applicable law, ”the Association wrote.

The AOGA statement is unusual. Usually, the association does not comment on such matters, but the AOGA was likely asked to do so in this instance to assure hesitant Republican lawmakers that the bill would not alter the state’s authority over its lands. or its relationship with private resource companies.

There are 15 House Cosponsors who have joined Zulkosky as Cosponsors. With the exception of Vance, all are Democrats, as are the two independents who are members of the House majority. A similar bill was introduced in the Legislature last year, but work was halted by the early end of the 2020 session due to COVID-19.

Kendra Kloster of Native Peoples Action, an advocacy group, told the House tribal affairs committee that official state recognition would recognize the reality on the ground. Alaska has 229 federally recognized tribes that provide community services, including public safety, economic development, and environmental protection.

“Formal relationships have been established with the federal government. However, no formal recognition by the state of Alaska has been made, ”she said.

The Native Alaskan tribes have been around since before accession to the state, but they were few in number and only reached the current total in the 1980s, when the federal government decided to encourage local management of the health and social service programs and recognized local tribal entities as organizations to be implemented. these functions.

The tribes of Alaska are different from the Native American tribes of the Lower 48, however, in that they generally do not hold land ownership, or at least a significant area, compared to the Lower 48 where the long-established tribes own large tracts of land on reserves. . In Lower 48, most tribes claim an autonomous legal status of “Indian country” which makes them partially exempt from state and municipal laws and taxes.

When Alaska became a state in 1959, state officials resisted asserting tribal rights because they wanted state laws to be applied uniformly in the new state and feared that if the tribes of Alaska were to own land, which some do, they would claim that Indians’ country status, creation created pockets of land under different legal jurisdictions.

Most Alaskan natives opposed the Lower 48 traditional reservations due to the continued influence of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs on tribal decisions. Rather, Alaska natives chose to own land privately, under state law, through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, enacted by Congress in 1971.

Regional and village corporations were established as part of the settlement of claims, but they were organized as private entities under state laws, and the indigenous shareholders of the corporations had full control without any federal or state oversight.

In the 1980s, however, many new tribes, almost all small and communal, were formed to provide local health and social services through federal contracts. These were recognized by the federal government so that they could provide services under contract, but they were also used to represent Alaska Natives in “government-to-government” relationships that also developed under federal law. . In government-to-government relations, federal agencies are required to consult with tribal entities, for example on federal decisions regarding major resource development projects. Because the state has never officially recognized tribes, there are no similar consultation obligations for state agencies.

HB 123 could change that.

In practice, however, government agencies often work with tribes in more informal arrangements. For example, there have been successful cooperative agreements for years between the State Department of Fish and Game and tribes of the interior of Alaska and along the Kuskokwim River, involving the management salmon and subsistence fishing.

Similar cooperative agreements govern subsistence hunting in other areas. And state agencies now recognize tribal authority over Alaskan Native child welfare and adoption.

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