Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes now have an officially designated spot at the Alaska Federation of Natives table following a meeting earlier this month that approved the change.
The issue of officially designating Native tribes as members has been under consideration for years by the AFN, an internationally recognized advocacy organization dedicated to advancing Alaska Native people’s interests. At a three day gathering representing at least 17 Native organizations, AFN was created in the ‘60s to primarily address Native land rights issues. Since the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, ambiguity of the tribal role within the greater Alaska Native community and within Federal Indian policy was clouded. In 1993, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Ada Deer, published a list recognizing Alaska Native villages organized under ANCSA as tribes. Although tribes were recognized at the federal level, their presence was absent from AFN.
But on Feb. 13, the AFN board of directors acted to include federally recognized tribes as a newly created voting member, though the board voted to keep the current size of 37 members. Each region has three representatives on the board; an ANCSA regional corporation seat, an ANCSA non-profit organization seat, and a village seat. Each region retains the right to determine their board representatives. Each regional corporation and non-profit entities will appoint their representatives, while tribal entities and village corporations will determine the village representative seat. Earlier proposals suggesting the board of directors expand to nearly 50 members were voted down in 2011, in part because of the logistics of coordinating a meeting with a body that large, said Gregory Razo, executive governance committee chairperson with AFN.
“I consider the action taken by the board of directors to be historic, actually,” Razo said Tuesday. “The AFN has evolved into a strong voice for Alaska Native public policy, but because the organic document had not changed for some time, we were missing out on a truly key component of people in Alaska.”
Changes result of multi-year process
Tara Sweeney, chair of the 2010-2011 AFN Leadership Committee tasked with examining governance restructuring options, said during the initial discussions with tribal representatives, the need for formal inclusion of tribes was identified.
“We continued to hear that tribal entities were not feeling like they had a voice within AFN,” Sweeney said.
This led to a resolution at the 2009 AFN convention pushing for change. In 2011 the board considered recognizing the tribal entities by adding one tribal or at-large member from each land-based region to the AFN board with each region being allowed the discretion to designate the seat as a tribal seat or to another Native entity within their home region.
In addition, it was recommended that the AFN create a governance council to oversee the administrative functions for AFN operations. Other changes included the establishment of a leadership structure that accommodated a co-chair system elected by the delegates. Term limits were initially recommended for the co-chairs. In 2011, the board did not enact these changes.
But the changes approved this month included significant modifications. The co-chair system was adopted, but term limits were not put in place. An executive governance committee was adopted, tasked with making emergency decisions for the board after the board of directors is surveyed, working with the president to ensure accountability for all AFN goals as defined by the board, and to secure resources for financial sustainability. The executive governance committee must also conduct an annual evaluation of the CEO, orient board members, annual review policies and structure of the corporation, and establish a foundation or endowment.
The executive governance committee will be comprised of one co-chair, one regional representative and three at-large members to be selected from the board.
Most important was the inclusion of Tribes as Class A(4) members of AFN.
Cost could be an issue
While the door has now been opened for Native tribes to participate in AFN formally, if they choose to participate, they must adhere to the bylaws of the AFN, which include the stipulation that in order to participate they must be members in good standing. That means they must have paid their membership dues, which are based on a formula based on the number of votes each entity holds.
Those numbers are based on constituent figures from decades past, Sweeney said, and are likely something the AFN may choose to take up in the not-too-distant future, but whether tribal organizations want to or can afford to pay for their spot at the table is still unknown.
“The question wasn’t how each tribe would pay those dues,” Sweeney said. “We were providing a user-group an opportunity to meaningfully participate in AFN.”
Different mission, same purpose
For decades since ANCSA, tribes in Alaska have been on uncertain ground, unsure of their rights in the eyes of the state and federal governments. Lawsuits over the decades clarified some of the status of Native tribes, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1993 that a list of Alaska tribes was published by the Department of the Interior with a lengthy preamble explicitly stating that the tribes were recognized by the federal government.
That meant that as federally recognized tribes, they enjoyed a government-to-government relationship that entitled them to protections, immunities and privileges such as some powers of self-government, though those powers have fluctuated depending on state leadership. Most recent leadership at a state level has been clearly oriented toward acceptance of Alaska tribes, and the federal dollars tribal self-governance brings in.
While other entities on the AFN’s board, such as regional corporations, may have different priorities and areas of focus and missions than the Alaska Native tribes, Sweeney noted, they are all working toward the same common goal of supporting Alaska Native interests.
“We are saying, ‘Let’s put our resources together and work in a common direction,’” Sweeney said. “The AFN was born out of the need for unity in the Alaska Native community. That message about unity then is just as relevant now.”
While each entity and area may have slightly different priorities and goals, there are many more commonalities than differences. Issues like the changing environment, social struggles or the high cost of living are consistent through each region, she said.
“The AFN is just as relevant today as it was when it was first born, whether you are sitting in Anaktuvuk Pass or Eagle River,” she said.
More work to do
Both Sweeney and Razo said the work of re-examining the bylaws of the AFN board and making them reflect the reality of Alaska Native contemporary demographics and needs is only just beginning, but the action taken last week is a huge first step.
Razo said the fee structure and how those fees are assessed is among the top issues for future re-evaluations.
But giving a formal spot at the table to Alaska’s Native tribes was a significant move forward in aligning the AFN with the constituents it represents, he said.
“Alaska’s federally recognized tribes hold a very unique status,” he said. “The policies that affect tribes may be similar but different, but they deserve to have their issues benefit from the strong voice of AFN as much as any other group. I really believe it’s a major step forward for AFN to truly represent and attempt to deal with policy interest that affect all natives.”
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder.