The Alaska state government would officially recognize all 229 federally recognized tribes under legislation passed Friday by the state Senate in a 15-0 vote.
If signed into law by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the measure will be mostly ceremonial. Lawmakers said it nonetheless represented an opportunity to respect Alaska Natives and tribal organizations that have historically faced state discrimination.
“I think the fundamental issue is a bit of respect and recognition,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.
Some lawmakers have said the measure, officially known as House Bill 123, could lead to new agreements between state and tribal organizations on a variety of topics.
“Now the work begins to define what real government-to-government relations should look like,” said La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, who supported the bill and saw it pass through the Senate.
“And that’s the next part, which we can’t wait to see how it actually plays out,” she said.
The bill must return to the House for a procedural vote before being returned to Dunleavy. A spokesman for the governor said Dunleavy would review the bill when it comes to him.
Effect on ballot measurement
The bill is nearly identical to a tribal recognition ballot measure directed at voters this fall.
If Dunleavy signs the bill or allows the bill to become law without his signature, the ballot measure will be voided under a provision of the Alaska Constitution that voids ballot measures if the legislature passes a substantially similar law.
A legal analysis conducted by legislative lawyers concluded that the bill is sufficiently similar. Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer would make the final decision.
Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson was one of the main sponsors of the ballot measure and watched the Senate vote.
He said organizers would meet later on Friday and the initiative “is now useless”.
“The ballot initiative should never have happened. It was (because of) a lack of legislative actions over the last few years,” he said.
Former Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, introduced a similar measure in 2020, but it failed to become law. Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, reintroduced it in 2021.
Members of the Legislative Assembly, especially Republicans, previously feared that recognizing the tribes would create a patchwork of land laws. Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said the fear was that the bill would create “230 individual nation states” scattered across Alaska.
Shower, chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, heard testimony about the bill and tweaked it slightly to address non-native concerns about it.
In the end, he joined 14 other senators in support.
Although symbolic, said Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, the recognition “does a lot because it brings dignity and respect.”
Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the recognition “will lead to new conversations” between the state and the tribes.
An example: Legislation near final passage in the House which would have the state partner with the tribes through pacts in order to run the schools.