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Compass: Strengths, weaknesses, sovereignty in Alaska Native communities

It's time for some full page Alaska Dispatch-News spreads on the strengths of Native communities in contrast to recent full page reporting on negative issues in Native Alaska. Not just for balance but to make clear the strengths of the Native communities are the only workable basis for dealing with real and serious weaknesses.

The most practical tool for exercising those strengths is the sovereignty inherent in Alaska Native communities. Sovereignty gives Native communities local power to deal with issues at the place and on the basis where these communities live. This Native sovereignty is recognized by the United States as pre-existing and separate from the U.S.' own sovereignty.

Native peoples know their own situation far better than non-Natives (well-meaning or otherwise). History makes that quite clear. And it is geographical fact that Alaska Native communities are far closer to themselves than they are to services based hours or days away.

The great strength of Alaska Native communities is evidenced by the survival of more than 200 of them into the 21st century in spite of all efforts to eliminate them physically, economically, culturally and spiritually. All this was creatively managed without the help of outside "experts."

The basis of that strength is the deep web of connections across time and into specific places. In this sense, Native communities are not isolated. They are right in the middle of where they need to be (except for some forcible relocations).

This web of connections is the only workable base for dealing with disconnections visited historically upon Native peoples and communities. Over many years, I see Native communities working to maintain the connections that exist and to strengthen and repair those strained, bent or broken; connections from practicalities of physical infrastructure to the spirituality underlying culture and family.

This is why the ongoing, almost knee-jerk legal opposition by the state of Alaska to Native sovereignty is so fundamentally misplaced and harmful. This is not to mention all the time, effort and public money involved and the misunderstanding and racism stirred up among non-Natives when sovereignty is presented as a threat. The recent report of the national Indian Law and Order Commission was correct to sharply criticize the state of Alaska's attitudes towards the tribes. The same can be said regarding Native subsistence -- also a fundamental matter of physical and spiritual connection for Native peoples.

On the positive side, my own experience is that apart from the governor's office, many state officials, employees and courts have come to greater understanding of and cooperation with tribal governments, tribal courts, tribal police and so on. This is the way it should be and could be. What a pity encouragement and support is lacking at the governor's level. Recently, the governor's office mentioned reaching out to tribal organizations. Yet the state becomes a direct contributor to the instability in Native communities by its constant legal and political attacks on this essential tool for local Native control. Real sincerity is measured by putting an end to this opposition.

To non-Natives I point out that healthy, active Alaska Native communities benefit all Alaska. Strong communities need fewer remedial services, and active Native communities bring in very significant amounts of funds to the local level. Moreover, unlike Outside interests, Alaska Natives spend a high proportion of their money in Alaska.

If the state truly sees legal issues in connection with tribal sovereignty, then let the state work them out in friendly and respectful dialogue with tribal governments. It is in the interest of the tribes to work with the state and they know that.

Tribal sovereignty is not about Balkanizing Alaska, as suggested in Joe Masters' recent op-ed. This is an old but repeated argument. On the contrary, the strengthening of the many Alaska Native communities establishes a web of local strong points all across our state that connect us together. In the end, tribal sovereignty is not just about 200 years of intricate legalities; it is the only practical means to local control in a place and on a base that has always been.

Tony Kaliss has 48 years of involvement with issues concerning Native and non-Native communities. He retired south to Anchorage in 2011 after seven years teaching at Ilisagvik Tribal College in Barrow.