The federal government has long recognized Alaska Native tribes, similar to how it recognizes tribes in the rest of the country. But Alaska’s state government hasn’t been as consistent, and state lawmakers are looking to change that.
Since the early 1990s, the federal government has included Alaska Native tribes on the list of federally recognized tribes.
And in 1999, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state must recognize them in the same way the federal government does. But even after that ruling, the state said Alaska Native tribes didn’t have jurisdiction over adoptions, like tribes had elsewhere in the U.S. The state later changed that position, but this inconsistent history has left tribes with uncertainty about the future.
Natasha Singh testified on Thursday in favor of House Bill 221, which would extend state recognition to federally-recognized tribes. She’s a Stevens Village tribal member and a lawyer for Tanana Chiefs Conference.
“Mostly the history between the state and the tribes haven’t been great,” Singh said. “When I first entered my career 10 years ago, the ‘t’ word, ‘tribe,’ was still somewhat off limits in some sectors.”
Tribal representatives 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 tribes has been expanding. The state and tribes agreed to a compact in 2017 for tribes to oversee child welfare. And lawmakers have raised the possibility of similar compacts for public education and public safety.
Ken Truitt is an aide to the bill’s sponsor, Anchorage Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp. Truitt is Tlingit, and worked on the bill. He said there have been times when the state government denied tribal sovereignty, and then asked tribes to waive their sovereign immunity from lawsuits.
“If you don’t exist, and you don’t exist as a sovereign, why does the state require a waiver of sovereign immunity before they’ll issue a grant?” Truitt said. “Our hope is that that kind of thinking will come to an end.”
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, said the bill reflects progress. He’s of Aleut heritage.
“The journey that’s taken place and the progress that’s being made here, particularly in the last couple of years, has been almost rapid-fire,” Edgmon said. “And I view this legislation as watershed legislation. This is not an ordinary bill.”
Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance, who is non-Native, says non-Native residents outside of the Capitol building should be included in discussions over the bill.
“We think that by asking for recognition as tribes, it elevates the tribes over all other Alaskans. And we know that that’s not true — that’s not what’s being asked,” Vance said. “But I think that’s the perception in a lot of non-Native minds. And I would like to be able to have that conversation, and talk about those uncomfortable things.”
Kopp, the bill’s sponsor, is not Alaska Native, but he says the state’s failure to recognize tribes has contributed to intergenerational trauma and issues like suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.
“We are absolutely incapable of moving forward as a state in any sense of wholeness, unless we do this,” Kopp said. “That’s really what this is about.”
Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said talk of concepts like tribal compacts to provide education feels hollow without formal recognition of tribes.
“It’s a point of trauma and contention to this day, that while we’re asked to step up and be a partner (and) we’re asked to waive our sovereignty, we can’t get simple recognition,” Peterson said. “So I think this bill would really be a powerful way, again, to begin that healing.”
Peterson said the recognition would acknowledge the thousands of years of Alaska Native history.
“It does not give us any special standing over any other (in) Alaska, but it recognizes our special place in Alaska,” he said.
The House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs is scheduled to hear public testimony on the bill on Tuesday.