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State of Alaska Recognizes 229 Tribes in Historic Bill

The state has had a long, hostile relationship with tribal governments that provide many essential services to Alaskans.

Detail of a totem pole in the village of Kake, a Tlingit village located on Kupreanof Island, Alaska, as seen on July 12, 2019.

The state of Alaska has finally, officially recognized nearly 230 tribes within the state, a move that many hope will improve relations between governments and people.

Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy signed House Bill 123, the Alaska Tribal Recognition Act, on Thursday, in which the state recognizes 229 tribes. The tribes already had federal recognition.

“House Bill 123 is nothing more or less than a statutory codification of a simple truth: that tribes exist in Alaska,” said bill sponsor Rep. Tiffany Zulkowsky, Yup’ik. “Tribes have quietly been doing excellent work as government in its most local form, and stewarding this land we now know as Alaska since time immemorial.”

The new law offers acceptance and recognition of tribes. How much more it does is unclear but Alaska Natives have high hopes.

Some see it as a basis for strong partnerships between tribes and the state of Alaska similar to those between tribes and the federal government. Others have said they hope it signals the end of state lawsuits challenging tribal sovereignty.

Zulkowsky said she’s commonly asked: What’s the point of statutory recognition if it doesn’t legally or structurally change state policy related to tribes?

Zulkowsky said Alaska is home to roughly half of the federally recognized tribes in the country. However, the state has had a long hostile and tenuous legal relationship with its tribal governments. Yet the state leans on its tribes and tribal partners to provide a myriad of essential services to Alaskans, from public safety and transportation to healthcare, economic development and education, she said.

“But how can the state talk about expanding relationships with tribes when it has never taken the most fundamental basic step by recognizing them in our legal code?,” Zulkowsky said. “This is not just about an opportunity to work more closely in the future. It’s an important first step towards healing and reconciling our past.”

Federal-Indian law lays out federal trust responsibilities to support tribal self-government and economic prosperity. In contrast, Alaska’s recognition act explicitly states it does not create a trust relationship between the state and tribes.

The Alaska Tribal Recognition Act acknowledges that the history of tribes in the Alaskan region predates both the United States and any territorial claims to land in the state.

“Indigenous people have inhabited land in the state for multiple millennia, since time immemorial or before mankind marked the passage of time,” the act states.“It is the intent of the legislature to …acknowledge through formal recognition the federally recognized tribes in the state. Passage of this Act is nothing more or less than a recognition of tribes’ unique role in the state’s past, present, and future.”

More than 100 people showed up to celebrate its signing at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. Native dignitaries such as Native settlement act leaders Emil Notti and Willie Hensley, Alaska Federation of Natives president Julie Kitka, and state and corporate officials turned out for speeches and discussions of the recognition act.

Sophie Minich, Athabascan, is President and CEO of CIRI, the for-profit regional Alaska Native corporation for the Cook Inlet region in South Central Alaska. She said her mother, who lost her own mother at a young age, was put in the BIA system, which affected her self-identity.

“My mother was not proud to be Alaska Native and that breaks my heart,” Minnick said.

However, state recognition of tribes, Minnick said, likely would have changed that.

“Because days like today, if my mother were alive, I think my mom would rejoice,” she said. “She’d be proud again, and she would just be full of pride to stand up here and say, ‘I’m Alaska Native. I’m Athabaskan. I am from a tribe. I’m an ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) shareholder. And I’m a person.’”

Minnick expressed thanks to everyone who worked to get the bill signed. “And Alaska: welcome to a new day, a new day for unity,” she said.

Former Rep. Bryce Edgmon is an Aleut descendent, the first Alaska Native to hold the post of House Speaker, from 2019 to 2021. He said just a few years ago tribes were the “boogeyman.” He said the introduction of even non-binding resolutions that mentioned tribes triggered the spread of anti-tribal misinformation.

Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson is Tlingit, Haida, and Unangan. He’s president and CEO of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. He too remembers when ‘tribe’ was a dirty word.

He said he was 19 when he began serving as mayor and tribal president for his village. He’s now 36.

“It was the tribe in our village that was powerful, that had money, that was getting things done. I had to wear my ‘mayor hat’ to get any recognition from the state, to get money from the state to get money into those projects,” he said.

Peterson said if he told legislators the tribe was the one making the infrastructure projects happen, “it just went silent. So I quickly learned if I’m going to be successful for my community, I’m going to have to stop saying the word ‘tribe,’ and that really bothered me.”

Those kinds of issues may be what Senate President Peter Miccice, a Republican from Kenai in South Central Alaska, had in mind when he thanked bill sponsor Rep. Tiffany Zulkowski for bringing the bill forward.

He said he did it “so that we can once and for all start the mending process of actually hundreds of years of not only unfair treatment but just the attitude that Alaska Natives were far less important, less deserving, less respected, deserve less respect for your culture and your subsistence way of life and just who you are as a people, the years of the boarding schools and countless things that occurred that were just simply unacceptable. This begins that process.”

Rhonda Pitka, Koyukon Athabascan and Inupiaq, is First Chief at Beaver Village Council and vice chair of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments.

She said tribes and the state have a lot of work before them.

“I think a series of meetings need to take place to start establishing what does this look like? It looks vastly different than the one (relationship) with the federal government that we have.”

When Pitka outlined the ways tribes and the state could cooperate to both their benefit, she described features tribes share with the federal government.

First up, said Pitka, government-to-government consultation: “We need to start forming relations, settling with our legislators, their staff and then heads of agencies like we already do with the federal government.”

Next up: compacting and contracting with tribes to provide services to their citizens. “And I really think having the policies and protocols in place early is going to be really critical,” Pitka said. “I think a lot of tribal governments already have that capability because of other relationships. So we’ll be doing this mostly just educating the state at this point, and making sure that they’re on the same page with us.”

That cooperation can lead to increased federal funding in areas such as health, education, public safety and infrastructure such as broadband, said Peterson and other tribal leaders.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, also signed a bill authorizing the state to compact with tribes to operate schools, which supports self determination. Sponsor Rep. Gary Stevens of Kodiak said it will also encourage the teaching of Native languages and cultures.

The Tribal Recognition Act is much like a ballot initiative that was going to get put on the ballot in November. The Lt. Governor announced the ballot measure is nullified as being substantially similar to the law passed by the legislature.

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