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Examining Sullivan's and Begich's records on Alaska Native issues

Heather Kendall-Miller,Lloyd Miller
Pictured: Incumbent Democrat US Senator Mark Begich, left, and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan debate on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 at UAA’s Wendy Williamson auditorium. Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News

Now that the primary is over and Dan Sullivan is the Republican nominee running against Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, it’s time to closely examine his record on issues of import to Alaska Natives. The Native community has long assessed political candidates based on their positions on subsistence, tribal sovereignty, Indian child welfare and voting rights. In each of these areas, Dan Sullivan’s record is clear: He is a staunch opponent of Native rights.

Perhaps no issue is of greater importance to Alaska Native people than the right to hunt and fish according to ancient customary and traditional practices, and to pass on the subsistence way of life to future generations. Dan Sullivan has aggressively opposed subsistence interests through litigation, legislative initiatives and support for state policies that marginalize tribal voices.

As former Gov. Sarah Palin’s attorney general, Sullivan waged war on subsistence rights by carrying on the Katie John litigation and seeking to overturn a prior court decision affirming the federal government’s retained authority to manage subsistence fisheries in Alaska. As most Alaskans know, Katie John was a revered Ahtna elder who fought tenaciously to protect her right to subsistence fish on her Native allotment in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Attorney General Sullivan joined the ranks of past Indian fighters who argued that the subsistence protections established under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act should be narrowed to exclude vast stretches of Alaska waters from subsistence fishing, in favor of sport and commercial fishing. Had it been successful, the appeal would have dismantled the Federal Subsistence Board’s authority to prioritize subsistence fishing over other uses when resources become limited. Fortunately, both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state’s attack.

Sullivan’s hostility to Native interests continued when Gov. Sean Parnell moved Sullivan over to be commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. As commissioner, Sullivan led the charge in adopting a new Bristol Bay Area Plan, which reclassified land use planning for state land at the Pebble mine deposit as solely mineral land, omitting any land use for subsistence hunting and fishing purposes in an area central to subsistence in Southwest Alaska.

In an effort to distract Alaskans, Sullivan frequently repeats the catchphrase “federal over-reach,” and in the name of state sovereignty he supports the state and the mining company’s lawsuit to stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from protecting the Bristol Bay watershed from destructive mega-mines like Pebble.

Sullivan’s opposition to subsistence rights does not stop with the Pebble mine. As commissioner, Sullivan also sought to marginalize tribal efforts to protect subsistence fisheries by pressing for enactment of Alaska House Bill 77. That bill would have granted Sullivan broad discretion to issue permits without any public notice, would have abolished the public’s right to weigh in on or appeal permitting decisions, and would have blocked tribes from applying for instream-flow water rights to protect fish. Sullivan was unapologetic in embracing this failed legislation, saying in March 2014 that “I led that effort and am proud of it.”

Sullivan’s track record on Native rights fares just as poorly when it comes to tribal sovereignty. As attorney general, Sullivan hired a high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm at over $1,000 per hour to secure U.S. Supreme Court review of a case that had recognized tribal court authority over member children. At issue was the state’s refusal to give full faith and credit to a tribal court order in a tribal adoption case heard by the Kaltag Tribal Court.

Sullivan and his hired gun made the extreme argument that the tribal court had no jurisdiction to protect its own village children. Fortunately, not only did Alaska lose that case, the state was later forced to pay Kaltag’s attorneys' fees. Sullivan’s hostility to tribal sovereignty was palpable in the state’s brief, even when the welfare of a small child hung in the balance.

Sullivan’s record on the Violence Against Women Act fares no better. The 2013 VAWA reauthorization allows tribal courts to prosecute certain crimes of domestic violence committed by non-Indian perpetrators, to enforce civil protection orders against them and to secure enforcement of those orders by states. But at the state administration’s request, and without any advance notice of public debate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski inserted an “Alaska exception” to VAWA that excluded Alaska tribes from VAWA’s new provisions. Alaska Native women immediately protested Murkowski’s amendment, and the Indian Law and Order Commission later called it “unconscionable.”

To her credit, Murkowski has joined Begich in seeking to amend VAWA by repealing the “Alaska exception.” But Sullivan is unabashed in opposing that fix, and in a recent MSNBC interview he refused to directly answer whether he would have voted to reauthorize VAWA in the first place.

Later, a Sullivan spokesman sent an email citing current Attorney General Michael Geraghty’s statement that the Alaska villages are well served by state law enforcement mechanisms. Plainly, Sullivan, like Geraghty, remains of the view that Alaska Native villages must not have any independent authority over an issue as local and as tragic as domestic violence, and must remain content to rely on a grossly underfunded and distant state system of justice that is centralized in the state’s urban areas.

At the same time, ongoing federal court litigation in Anchorage demonstrates that this administration continues to violate the rights of Alaska Native voters. In Toyukak v. Treadwell, two tribes and two Alaska Native voters filed suit in federal court charging state election officials with ongoing violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

The trial earlier this summer has shown that state officials regularly fail to provide sufficient language assistance to citizens whose first language is Yup’ik, the primary Alaska Native language in Western Alaska. Indeed, evidence at trial indicated that the state has been operating one electoral system for urban voters and a separate and lesser one for Native and rural voters. Without the very federal protections that Alaska opposes, Native voters would have no protection at all.

Fortunately for Alaska Natives and tribes elsewhere, Begich is in good position to be re-elected. Begich has amassed a solid record in support of Alaska Native and American Indian interests. In direct contrast to Sullivan’s hostility, Begich has drafted and championed strong amendments to the proposed Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act, granting local tribal governments the tools they need to protect women and children from domestic violence and sexual assault, and to help tribal communities combat alcohol and drug abuse.

Begich is also pressing to repeal the Alaska tribal exception to the Violence Against Women Act, in order to enhance the enforceability of tribal court domestic violence orders. Sullivan and other members of his administration oppose these measures in the name of  states’ rights and  state sovereignty — dangerous and provocative language drawn from a darker period in American history. Sullivan’s preference for a feckless state rural law enforcement machinery that has done little to abate these problems in village Alaska reveals his root distrust of tribal governments.

But it isn’t just in tribal sovereignty matters where the two part ways. Begich has a demonstrated commitment to protecting the Alaska Native subsistence way of life. Sullivan? Not so much.

Like his predecessor Ted Stevens, Begich squarely opposes the Pebble mine, in part because it would destroy the subsistence way of life enjoyed for millennia by the Bristol Bay tribes. Begich therefore supports EPA’s effort to protect the tribes by restricting mining in the area. In contrast, Sullivan’s knee-jerk opposition to whatever the Obama administration proposes on any topic recalls a Marx brothers song: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

Begich’s record here runs deep. He developed and secured passage of a subsistence bill that overruled federal prohibitions against serving donated traditional foods in schools, hospitals and elder care facilities. He is the Obama administration’s chief opponent in defending the rights of tribes in Alaska and elsewhere to be treated at least as fairly as other government contractors. He was the main Democratic architect in the successful bipartisan campaign to defeat the Obama administration’s 2013 attack on tribal contractors.

His hold on the confirmation of the U.S Indian Health Service (IHS) director, together with his personal advocacy with the president and his public campaign in the media, forced a breakthrough in the settlement of historic breach of contract lawsuits against IHS, yielding more than $600 million in nationwide settlements just this year for tribal health care systems.

In the end, Begich has a proven record of accomplishments in advancing Alaska Native and American Indian interests. It is a solid and bipartisan record, as reflected in his close votes and coordinated efforts on these issues with fellow senator Lisa Murkowski. These party opponents know how to compromise and work together for a greater cause. By all indications, that is not Sullivan’s way. Which is why we’ll be voting for Sen. Mark Begich on Nov. 4.

Attorneys Heather Kendall-Miller  and Lloyd Miller have been practicing Indian law in Alaska and Washington, D.C., for more than 50 years combined. The views expressed here do not represent those of their employers.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.