June 30, 1997

Dissidents look beyond court's Venetie ruling

By Tom Kizzia
Daily News reporter

Some of Alaska's most outspoken Native activists have little patience for the Venetie decision.

The mainstream thrust of the Native sovereignty movement in rural Alaska villages has been to expand tribal powers through federal Indian law, working with Native rights lawyers who draw on precedents from the Lower 48.

But some Native leaders have a more radical analysis that rejects even a federal role in protecting their rights. They say they're not waiting for the Supreme Court to tell them they have sovereign powers.

This radical wing of the sovereignty movement has adherents around the state, from the Chickaloon tribe north of Anchorage, which has been locked in a court battle with the state for years over a road right of way through a Native allotment, to the Southeast village of Klawock, where activist Rudy James organized a tribal court outside traditional channels to oversee the well-publicized -- and short-lived -- wilderness banishment of two boys convicted of assault in Washington state.

Their claims of sovereignty derive from a variety of legal and historical sources, based broadly on a lack of consent from Natives. Their arguments, so far unpersuasive in courts, include rights of indigenous people recognized under the United Nations charter and a clause of the Alaska Constitution that disclaims authority over Native lands held by the federal government.

Some adherents say Russia never claimed jurisdiction over all of Alaska, so the United States gained no legal authority over Natives with its purchase in 1867. Others say state policies violate international genocide treaties by failing to recognize Native self-government.

In state court, Chickaloon tribal leaders have cited everything from the Indian Civil Rights Act to Article 73 of the United Nations charter in attempting to deny the state criminal jurisdiction.

The movement has caused sharp divisions within several villages where other Natives subscribe to a more conventional approach to sovereignty.

In one such village, Tununak, the traditional elders council and the IRA council have run rival bingo games. Tununak made headlines in 1994 when the traditional council tried to stop an Alaska State Trooper from arresting a villager for assault. The state responded with two planeloads of troopers and the incident ended peacefully.

The ''elders council'' movement has lost a little steam on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in recent years, according to some of the region's tribal officials.

''Those leaders talk about things that are just impossible for them to accomplish, large amounts of money they're entitled to,'' said James Charlie of Toksook Bay. ''They're brainwashing other elders. We didn't avoid it at first. Then our elders found out this was going to create divisions in the community, so they withdrew their resolutions.''

Still, elements of the radical analysis remain rooted in Delta villages like Kasigluk and Newtok, where leaders warn that reliance on ''third parties'' like the federal government will backfire when federal court rulings turn unfavorable.

And though statewide Native leaders often try to distance themselves from the more radical spokesmen, they don't want to reject their arguments out of hand.

If the Supreme Court overturns the Venetie decision and blocks Indian country in Alaska, some mainstream leaders say, villages will be forced to rely on civil disobedience and human-rights appeals to the United Nations.

''We've all been aware it may come to the point where we have to go out in that direction,'' said Will Mayo, president of the Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference. ''They were way ahead of the game. But if we lose -- and we've already lost subsistence -- then we'll have to go to other forums.''

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