June 30, 1997

Akiachak bingo

Akiachak's winter carnival bingo was moved to the elementary school from the community center because attendance was so high. Tribal bingo, run without state gaming permits, helps raise funds for tribal operations in the Kuskokwim River village. (Anchorage Daily News photo by Ann Raup)

A revolution in Akiachak

Village puts 'Eskimo country' pieces together

By Tom Kizzia
Daily News reporter

Wonder what Indian country in Alaska might look like some day? Take a trip to Akiachak, a Yup'ik Eskimo village of 570 people along the Kuskokwim River.

With its neat stacks of pull-tabs and the popcorn-popper whir of numbered pingpong balls, the plywood bingo hall in Akiachak feels like scores of other recreation buildings around Bush Alaska. But one thing makes it different. The Akiachak bingo hall is run by the tribe without any state permits, which is illegal under state law.

On bingo nights, Robert Snyder waits at the back of the bingo hall for steam bath time to end. Once the red-cheeked ''steamers'' come in the door, the ex-Marine gets busy at the cash register.

Two years ago, when Snyder was village police chief, Alaska State Troopers raided Akiachak, about 15 miles upriver from Bethel. The troopers took away 47 boxes of pull-tabs, but no charges were pressed. In the murky legal environment surrounding Indian country in Alaska, tribal bingo may turn out to be legal. The village's attorney maintains that the state ''stole'' the tribe's property.

In February, Akiachak had a bingo weekend with $3,500-maximum cards -- the state sets a limit of $1,000 a card -- and drew gamblers on snowmachines from villages across the region.

The tribe collects a 5 percent sales tax at the village's three small grocery stores. The tax and the bingo receipts help the tribal council pay the salaries of five village cops, who patrol in a state-funded Chevy Suburban with a shield painted on the door over the words Akiachak Tribal Police.

The village police enforce laws passed by the tribal council. They sound the siren each night for the teenager curfew. They set snares for wild dogs that dig around the village cemetery. They flag dangerous holes in the river ice, which becomes a highway of passing headlights in winter.

The cops also enforce a law banning importation and possession of alcohol. Check the state's list of dry villages, and you won't see Akiachak. The tribal council adopted its own alcohol ordinance rather than push a referendum under the state's ''local-option'' prohibition law. The state's law would have left enforcement to the state troopers, and council leaders wanted to handle matters themselves.

Indian country in Alaska will be the subject of arguments before the Supreme Court next fall. But Akiachak has been treating its surrounding territory as Indian country since 1985, when a generation of thirtysomething Yup'ik activists took the village helm.

They know they can't go to state court to collect fines or taxes. They rely on moral persuasion and the traditional Yup'ik pressure to conform.

Anyone found drunk is picked up by the tribal police and held overnight in the tribe's new jail, which was built with federal funds. Then the defendant goes to tribal court, where he is likely to be sentenced to a lecture from Moravian church elders and a term of community service hauling river water for elders, who don't like the taste of chlorine at village pumps.

Tribal court consists of a judge, a clerk, the accused and a written copy of the police report. No lawyers or cross-examinations. Proceedings are in Yup'ik. Village officials say that except in one or two cases, where people schooled by the state's criminal justice system complained the tribe had no jurisdiction, the local court works smoothly.

''Being Yup'ik, our people don't lie. They admit to their violations,'' said tribal court administrator Fritz George.

Akiachak's leaders have financed this burst of tribal activity by building an economy around what may ultimately be a nonrenewable resource: federal programs for Native Americans.

The Akiachak council has an annual budget of $1.5 million. Less than $200,000 of that comes from the sales tax and bingo -- programs that recirculate money inside the community. Most of the rest comes from Congress.

The tribal council has taken advantage of a new federal law aimed at promoting Native self-determination. The tribe hires people with federal funds to run natural resource, health and children's programs, bypassing both the federal bureaucrats and the regional nonprofit association in Bethel. More than 40 adults work for the tribe, including front-office staff.

Said tribal council member Jackson Lomack: ''One big effect so far of tribal government is revenue and jobs.''

Independence in 1983

In a broad political movement that has received scant attention in urban Alaska, dozens of villages on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have taken similar steps in the past decade toward tribal self-government.

These actions occurred long before November's the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision to recognize Indian country around the Interior Athabaskan village of Venetie. The state is appealing that decision to the Supreme Court.

State officials occasionally express concern about the haphazard evolution of local governance under a tribal system officially unrecognized by the state.

''Every little village out here says they have a tribal court but nobody's defined what it is and how they interact with the state courts. You have 56 villages and 56 ways of doing justice,'' said former trooper Sgt. Warren Grant, who recently retired from the Bethel post.

But state law enforcement officials generally acknowledge that working with tribal councils is sometimes the only practical way to administer the roadless region of 22,000 people, 90 percent of whom are Yup'ik Eskimo.

''Akiachak has tried to respond to a very perceived local need where the state has not been able to fill the gap,'' said Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho. ''It's hard for me to criticize.''

With an unusual combination of flamboyance and Yup'ik reserve, Akiachak's young leaders issued their first proclamation of independence in 1983, and have managed to treat the surrounding territory as Indian country for more than a decade without triggering lawsuits.

''Part of it is that in most villages like Akiachak you don't have a lot of non-Native interests,'' said Ann Fienup-Riordan, an Anchorage anthropologist who has studied traditional governance in Akiachak and other Yup'ik villages. ''They're way at the end of the food chain.''

Akiachak's first step was taken strictly under state law. Tribal activists helped the village withdraw from the regional school district and form a local district with two nearby villages, Akiak and Tuluksak. Parents said they wanted more local control and more Yup'ik instruction.

In 1990, Akiachak formally dissolved its dormant second-class municipality, which had been one of nearly 100 city governments formed in predominantly Native villages since statehood. Dissolution cost the village about $40,000 a year in state revenue sharing to cities. Control was assumed by a tribal council chartered under the 1936 Indian Reorganization Act. It was one of about 75 IRA councils organized in Alaska under the federal law.

Under the leadership of then-tribal chairman Willie Kasayulie, who had steeped himself in federal Indian law when he attended high school in Vermont, Akiachak helped organize the Yupiit Nation, a confederation of 14 tribal governments. Yupiit Nation offers itself as a future rival to the nonprofit Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel, once the center of social activism on the Delta.

Akiachak's path to "Eskimo country" may seem revolutionary, but the village has relied on mainstream federal laws applied hitherto mostly in the Lower 48.

Some Yukon-Kuskokwim villages pushing for more local control are staying within the state system, while others consider Akiachak a sell-out for accepting even federal limits to its sovereignty.

Many options are being explored today in the Delta.

Some villages share power between tribal and municipal governments. ''A lot of the time we support each other getting grants,'' said James Charlie Sr., administrator for the Toksook Bay traditional council, which meets monthly with its municipal counterparts. ''As long as you have leaders that are working together, that's no problem.''

In Quinhagak, rival councils that once clashed have merged. The city council still meets, but contracts with the tribe to provide all services in an arrangement still being scrutinized by state lawyers. ''We were wasting precious money on two administrations,'' said tribal administrator Anthony Caole.

On the lower Yukon River, four tribes have formed a consortium they say will run federally funded programs more efficiently than a single small village can. The consortium, called Kuigpagmiut, which includes tribal representatives from Mountain Village, Andreafsky, Pitkas Point and Marshall, has tried to meet state concerns by spinning off a state-chartered nonprofit corporation to handle some grants, said president Robert Beans.

In Kipnuk, traditional Yup'ik governance never gave way to a municipality. Kipnuk even rejected an IRA council like Akiachak's years ago because it required a federal charter. Kipnuk village corporation's 106,000 acres of tundra, all the land from the land claims act, was turned over to the traditional council nine years ago in the only way lawyers said would be debt-free: by a shareholder vote without a single dissent.

In a half-dozen Delta villages over the past decade, activists have formed ''elders councils'' and claimed sovereignty under the terms of Alaska's purchase from Russia and international doctrines that they say supercede the U.S. Constitution.

Uncle Sam foots the bill

The expansion of tribal activity in rural Alaska has been financed by Congress.

Under the 1975 Indian Self-Determination Act, passed by Congress to strengthen Native American tribes, money that once went to centralized federal bureaucracies now goes directly to tribes and tribal-based agencies for housing, health care and other services.

In the process, the Alaska office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs shrank from more than 1,000 employees to fewer than 100 during the past two decades, said the agency's Alaska director, Niles Cesar.

The first to benefit in Alaska were regional nonprofit corporations operating out of hub communities like Bethel or Kotzebue.

''The hub-based model was really a colonial model. It was something the state and feds were used to,'' said Kimberly Martus, an Anchorage tribal justice consultant who advises tribes on their court systems. ''But the federal funds have done what they were supposed to do, develop capacity at the village level.''

Now some villages are taking things to the next stage, withdrawing support from regional agencies to administer programs themselves.

''It's obvious to me that all the programs are going to be picked apart and in some cases cherry-picked by the tribes,'' Cesar said. ''There's no question (an individual tribe) can't deliver the services as economically, but efficiency of services takes second seat to independence of delivery."

This year, Akiachak received federal funds for its own substance-abuse and health clinic programs.

''There will be limits,'' said Gene Peltola, president of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which used to handle those programs. ''The (Indian Health Service) won't allow them to carve up the (Bethel) hospital into 58 pieces.''

Tribes have been adept at finding other sources of funds, including the Clinton administration's COPS program, aimed at putting more police on the nation's streets. A dozen unincorporated villages statewide, including Akiachak, have received nearly $1.5 million from the Department of Justice for tribal police officers who, according to official state and federal policies on Indian country, have no criminal jurisdiction.

''This is how we often get new policies,'' BIA's Cesar said. ''Somebody jumped the gun, and then people looked out and said, 'Yeah, it works.' ''

Akiachak also has started taking direct control of government-funded construction projects, employing local labor and eliminating the outside contractors who brought in their own crews.

The council is now negotiating with state and federal agencies to directly contract for construction of a new airport and a water and sewer system, which will allow Akiachak residents to have bathrooms for the first time. The two grants could add up to more than $8 million.

State grants to tribes require that a project be built and serve the public in a nondiscriminatory manner, said deputy attorney general Barbara Ritchie. She said the state has contracted with tribes since 1982 without any discrimination complaints.

But the sudden shift of responsibility to the tribes has not been flawless. The state held back on the Akiachak water project, waiting for the IRA council to clear up a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over withholding taxes, said state project manager Steve Eng. Tribal officials attribute the debt to bad tax advice, not deliberate insurrection, and say they are now paid up and following the federal tax code.

The spread of tribal contracting is beginning to worry construction companies.

''When you get into major projects where a lot of expertise is involved, the local competence isn't there,'' said Henry Springer, executive director of the Associated General Contractors. Springer said he worries that tribal bidding won't be fair to all companies.

''This is coming up all across the state,'' said FAA airport planner Jim Loman. ''Whichever community does this first, we want to make it a success.''

Akiachak's leaders concede that grant administration is not exactly a stable long-term basis for an economy. Like other villages, Akiachak is scrambling for economic development, but few opportunities exist on the lower Kuskokwim. They have a grant to study markets for whitefish and pike.

Meanwhile, the IRA council has turned to that old village standby: it opened a small store, selling cereal and Pilot Bread and steel traps, in competition with the bigger store run by the Akiachak village Native corporation.

How does it feel for a claims-act Native corporation to compete with the tribe in Indian country? ''It's free enterprise,'' shrugged Akiachak corporation general manager Charles James.

State voices concerns

Some critics of Native sovereignty say the state shouldn't fund projects in tribal villages. Even school funding, the state's strongest tether to tribal villages, may someday be called into question, they warn.

''Eventually, people will tire of providing services on this one-way street and there's liable to be a backlash,'' said Anchorage attorney Wayne Anthony Ross, a critic of tribal sovereignty who represented sportsmen in a lawsuit over subsistence.

Last spring, state legislators who said they were concerned about the potential for racial discrimination by tribes attempted to cut off state funding to tribal governments for revenue sharing and village safe water projects. Republican leaders wanted to require villages to form state-chartered nonprofit corporations to receive state funds.

The move struck a raw nerve. Bush legislators left the majority to join Democrats to defeat the budget moves. But Republicans promised to try again.

''The state can't fund any body that discriminates,'' Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, said. ''They were doing good work, but we couldn't legally send them the money.''

Taylor and other Republicans insist that waivers allowing lawsuits against tribes and nondiscrimination clauses are not as solid as Knowles administration lawyers and Native rights attorneys say they are. They predict tribes will find ways around them.

Told of the pervasive tribal government already in place in Akiachak, Taylor replied, ''Every bit of that would be legal today if they formed their own municipality. The only difference is they'd have to do it under the U.S. and state constitutions.''

In March, the Republican majority cited a number of concerns about tribal sovereignty in a legal analysis, including immunity from lawsuits, loss of access and eminent domain powers, weakened enforcement of state fish and game rules, and loss of civil rights for Natives and non-Natives in tribal courts.

In Akiachak, such alarms are met with puzzlement and dismay. Council members say the biggest resource conflict is firewood poaching by Bethel residents. Apart from school employees, only four non-Natives live in Akiachak, all married into the community.

Nevertheless, village leaders say they watched non-Natives take over Bethel using state institutions. They don't want to see that happen in Eskimo country.

''The big battle I see now is with the state,'' said Kasayulie, who served as chairman of the regional nonprofit Association of Village Council Presidents and is now administrator for the Akiachak IRA council.

''They need to see firsthand what the villages are trying to do, to realize we're fighting for the same things the big cities want to do,'' Kasayulie said. ''If they would come here, they would see people trying to run governments with limited resources and a whole bunch of regulations. Those people who talk like that, I don't think they've ever set foot in rural villages like Akiachak before.''

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