The federal government has long recognized the native tribes of Alaska, in the same way it recognizes the tribes of the rest of the country. But the Alaska state government has not been so consistent, and state lawmakers are looking to change that.
Since the early 1990s, the federal government has included the Native Alaskan tribes on the list of tribes recognized by the federal government. And in 1999, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state must recognize them in the same way as the federal government.
But even after that ruling, the state said Native Alaskan tribes did not have jurisdiction over adoptions, as tribes did elsewhere in the United States. The state later changed that position, but this inconsistent history left the tribes uncertain about the future.
Natasha Singh testified last Thursday in support of Bill 221, which would extend state recognition to federally recognized tribes. She is a member of the Stevens Village tribe and an advocate for the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
âMost of the time, the story between the state and the tribes has not been great,â Singh said. âWhen I started my career 10 years ago, the word ‘tribe’ was still somewhat banned in some areas. “
Tribal officials said the bill could remove uncertainty that could cloud the state’s legal relationship with tribes. And the number of legal agreements between the state and the tribes has increased.
The state and the tribes agreed in 2017 to a pact for the tribes to oversee child welfare. And lawmakers have raised the possibility of similar deals for education and public safety.
Ken Truitt is an aide to Bill’s godfather, Anchorage Republican Representative Chuck Kopp. Truitt is Tlingit and worked on Bill. He said there were times when the state government denied tribal sovereignty and then asked the tribes to lift their sovereign immunity from prosecution.
âIf you don’t exist and you don’t exist as a sovereign, why does the state require a waiver of sovereign immunity before issuing a grant? Said Truitt. âOur hope is that this kind of thinking comes to an end. “
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham, said the bill reflects progress. He is of Aleut origin.
âThe journey that has taken place and the progress that has been made here, especially over the past two years, has been almost rapid,â said Edgmon. âAnd I consider this legislation to be watershed legislation. It is not an ordinary bill.
Homer Republican Representative Sarah Vance, who is not Indigenous, said non-Indigenous residents outside the Capitol building should be included in discussions on the bill.
âWe believe that asking for recognition as a tribe elevates the tribes above all other Alaskans. And we know that’s not true – that’s not what’s being asked, âVance said. âBut I think that’s the perception of a lot of non-native minds. And I wish I could have this conversation and talk about these uncomfortable things.
Kopp, the bill’s godfather, is not originally from Alaska, but he said the state’s failure to recognize tribes contributed to intergenerational trauma and issues such as suicide and l drug and alcohol abuse.
“We are absolutely incapable of moving forward as a state in a sense of wholeness unless we do,” Kopp said. “This is really what it is.”
Richard Peterson, chairman of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said talking about concepts like tribal pacts to provide education seems hollow without formal tribal recognition.
“It is a point of trauma and contention so far, as we are asked to step up and be a partner (and) we are asked to relinquish our sovereignty, we cannot get simple recognition. “said Peterson. “So I think this bill would be a really powerful way, again, to start this healing.”
Peterson said the recognition would recognize Alaska’s thousands of years of Indigenous history.
âIt doesn’t give us any special position compared to any other (in) Alaska, but it does recognize our special place in Alaska,â he said.
The House special committee on tribal affairs is scheduled to hear public testimony on the bill on Tuesday.
Watch Gavel’s latest legislative coverage in Alaska.