A bill giving formal state recognition to Alaska Native tribes is moving through the Legislature. House Bill 123, sponsored by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel was voted out of the House State Affairs Committee April 22 after moving earlier from the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs.
The bill does not change the legal relationships between the state and tribes, but there is hugely important symbolism at stake, Zulkosky said. “The federal government has a special and unique relationship with tribes that the State would formally acknowledge through this bill,” Zulkosky wrote in introducing the bill.
“Despite the shared values between tribes and the State that seek to ensure vibrant and healthy communities, Alaska obtained statehood during an era of federal Indian policy where the federal government sought to terminate its trust relationship with Tribes, forcing tribes to abandon their identity.
“While the federal government embraced needed change and went on to pass the (federal) Self Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975, Alaska’s statutory policy towards tribes is still a relic of the past,” Zulkosky said. “Many struggles by Alaska Natives today “have been reinforced by the state’s historic policy of telling its tribes that they have no standing,” in state law, she said.
“It is time to break from this outdated policy. HB 123 serves as a first step, formalizing in statute that the State of Alaska will no longer deny tribes’ existence. This provides a first step towards stronger relationships between Alaska and its tribes,” she wrote.
One of the state’s major industry organizations, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, has weighed in on the bill: “Nothing in this legislation appears to relinquish the State of Alaska’s authority over particular lands, peoples, or activities, create any additional burdens on the state or private industry or impact the rights of Alaska Natives as set forth in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or under other applicable law.”
AOGA’s statement is unusual. Usually, the association does not comment on issues like this, but AOGA was likely asked to do so in this case, to assure legislators that the bill would not alter the state’s authority over its lands or it relationships with private resource companies.
There are eight cosponsors in the House who have joined Zulkosky as cosponors. All are Democrats. No House Republicans are on the bill as a cosponsor. A similar bill was before the Legislature last year, but work was cut short by the early termination of the 2020 session due to COVID-19. Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate, SB 108.
Kendra Kloster, of Native Peoples Action, an advocacy group, told the House committee that formal state recognition would recognize reality on the ground. Alaska has 229 federally recognized tribes which provide community services including public safety, economic development, and environmental protection. “Formal relationships have been established with the federal government. However, no formal recognition by the State of Alaska has taken place,” Kloster wrote.
Alaska Native tribes have existed since before statehood but they were few in number and increased to the current total only in the 1980s when the federal government moved to encourage local management of health and social service programs.
The Alaska tribes are different than Native American tribes in the Lower 48 states, however, in that they do not usually hold ownership of land, or at least substantial acreage, as compared with the Lower 48 where long-established tribes own large land tracts in reservations, with most claiming an autonomous “Indian Country” legal status that makes them partly exempt from state and municipal laws and taxes.
When Alaska became a state in 1959, state officials resisted the assertion of tribal rights because they wanted state laws to be applied uniformly across the new state and they were concerned that if Alaska tribes came to own lands, which some do, they would assert Indian Country status, creating create pockets of land under different legal jurisdictions.
Most Alaska Natives were opposed to the traditional reservations in the Lower 48 because of the continued influence of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs over tribal decisions. Alaska Natives opted instead to own lands privately, under state laws, through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, enacted by Congress in 1971. Regional and village corporations were created under the claims settlement, but they were organized as private entities under state laws and Native shareholders in the corporations had total control with no federal, or state, oversight.
In the 1980s, however, many new tribes, almost all of them small and community-based, were formed to provide local health and social services through federal contracts. These were federally recognized so as to be able to provide services under contract but they also served to represent local Alaska Native people in “government-to-government” relationships that also developed under federal law. Under government-to-government relationships federal agencies are required to consult tribal entities, for example on federal decisions on major resource development projects.
Because the state never formally recognized tribes there is no similar set of consultation obligations for state agencies. HB 123 could changa that. In practice, however, state agencies often work with tribes under more informal arrangements. For example, there are cooperative agreements that have operated successfully for years between the state Department of Fish and Game and tribes in Interior Alaska and along the Kuskowkim River involving management of salmon and subsistence fishing.
Similar cooperative arrangements govern subsistence hunting in other areas. And state agencies now recognize tribal authority in Alaska Native child welfare and adoptions.