Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Thursday signed a bill that officially recognizes the sovereignty of the 229 federally recognized Alaska Native tribes.
The bill signing event took place at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where a large and emotional crowd included tribal leaders, state legislators and election candidates. Amid tears and laughter, the indigenous leaders spoke of the legislation as a way to heal a painful past and create more opportunities for a productive partnership with the state government in the future.
The measure sponsored by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat, passed the Legislature in May with bipartisan support. Zulkosky, who is Yup’ik, on Thursday called the bill “a historic step” in advancing state-tribal relations.
The bill, she said, is “a statutory recognition of a simple truth – that tribes exist in Alaska.”
The bill states that “the history of tribes in the state predates the United States and predates territorial claims to land in the state by the United States and Imperial Russia. Indigenous peoples have inhabited lands in the state for several millennia, from time immemorial or before mankind marked the passage of time.
He goes on to say that “the intent of the Legislature is to exercise its constitutional policy-making authority and to recognize by formal recognition the federally recognized tribes in the state. The passage of this law is nothing more or less than a recognition of the unique role of tribes in the past, present and future of the state.
The Federation of Alaska Natives said in a statement that “the law does not affect the existing legal status of Alaskan tribes, or the responsibility or authority of the state. However , it recognizes the native peoples of Alaska. This recognition will help unify our tribal governments with the state government.
Zulkosky and other supporters of the measure say it will also ease a history of legal challenges between the state and tribes.
Indigenous leaders said tribes in Alaska are already tasked with providing services to tribal members and others, drawing on designated federal funding to boost education, health and infrastructure, among other things. services. But state recognition, they said, could pave the way for better governmental relations between the state and the tribes.
“If you live in rural Alaska and you can flush the toilet, thank your tribe because it was our money that came in and did this for everyone,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson , President of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. .
“Tribes are an economic force in Alaska. Hugely,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent who previously served as Speaker of the House. In this capacity, Edgmon spearheaded the creation of a Legislative Tribal Affairs Committee in 2019. Zulkosky served as the committee’s first chair.
“Today is in some ways the culmination of what we’re trying to achieve, but in other ways it’s the start of a journey,” Edgmon said, adding that his vision is that “The tribes aren’t just going to be at the table, they’re going to be at the head of the table.
Alaska follows several other states that have recognized tribes within their borders, including Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia.
There are more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, more than a third of which are in Alaska. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, federal tribal recognition comes with opportunities for federal funding, whereas state recognition does not guarantee state funding.
Peterson was one of several Indigenous leaders behind a ballot initiative last year that sought to pose the question of tribal recognition to voters. The group has collected the signatures needed to push the issue forward to voters, but signing the bill now means that initiative will remain out of the November ballot.
“It was one of the fastest signing rallies we’ve ever seen. Why? Because Alaskans — not just Alaska Natives — knew it was time,” Peterson said. “Most were puzzled and stunned that it didn’t already exist.”
The ballot initiative was launched after a legislative effort to pass a stalled tribal recognition bill in 2020 amid the pandemic that cut short the legislative session this spring. The following year, Zulkosky began to propose a new version of the bill.
“It’s really great that Alaskans are exercising their voice at the polls. But I think what’s more significant about legislative action is that the Legislative Assembly is such a microcosm of different political philosophies, different perspectives,” Zulkosky said. Moving the bill forward, she said, required having sometimes difficult conversations.
“We didn’t realize – some of us – how important this was to members of Alaska Native communities,” said Sen. Mike Shower, a Republican from Wasilla who helped push the bill forward. bill in the state senate. “In the future, we will have the opportunity to grow and do so many things that we haven’t done.”
Participants in the signing of the bill included some of Alaska’s most experienced Native leaders – and a new generation.
Ida Nelson, a member of the Igiugig tribe, attended the ceremony with two young children, ages 3 and 1. The bill, she said, guarantees that they “will still have tribal sovereignty when they grow up.”
Willie Hensley and Emil Notti, who helped form the Federation of Alaska Natives in 1966 and passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, also celebrated the adoption of the bill.
“It’s important to recognize that the bill was introduced by a Democrat, passed with bipartisan support, and signed into law by a Republican governor,” Notti said.
While Alaska follows at least 13 states that have recognized tribes within their borders, Dunleavy touted the bill as one that sets Alaska apart from the lower 48.
“We had a tough couple of years in the Lower 48,” he said, “in which statues were torn down, history was rewritten. But I think it’s a testament to us that in Alaska, we’re adding stuff for a more complete story.
Beaver Native Village Chief Rhonda Pitka said she was excited about Dunleavy’s willingness to work with tribes and looked forward to working on partnerships between tribal and state government.
“I was going to ask for his planner’s phone number so I can set up my first meeting, so we can really get down to business. It’s been a challenge to do anything,” Pitka said. Now she says she’s considering more “government-to-government consultation.”
Alaskan First Lady Rose Dunleavy also spoke on Thursday, telling the audience that “we can’t forget that we’re not just tribesmen. We are Americans and we are Alaskans.
US House candidate Mary Peltola, a former Democratic lawmaker who attended the ceremony, said she was moved by Rose Dunleavy’s remarks. Peltola, who is Yup’ik, said she too felt the legislation highlighted her identity as both an Alaskan and a tribal member.
Peltola was not the only political candidate present. Former independent governor Bill Walker, who is one of Dunleavy’s challengers in this year’s gubernatorial race, was also at the bill signing on Thursday.
Dunleavy also signed a bill Thursday creating a state-tribal education pact, designed to give tribes greater control over education programs for tribal members.
Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican who sponsored the bill, said it would create opportunities to incorporate Indigenous cultures and languages into tribal school curricula.
“I can’t tell you how impressive it is,” Stevens said of the standing audience gathered only to watch the bill’s signing. “The last bill I had the governor sign was a week and a half ago. There were two of us in the room, the governor and me. It is therefore really impressive to see those who care about the legislation that we are passing. »
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Ida Nelson’s relationship with the two young children in her care who were present with her when Thursday’s bill was signed.
• • •