Following up on a pledge to improve relations between the state government and Native tribes, Gov. Bill Walker on Wednesday issued an administrative order creating a tribal advisory council.
Walker signed the order at the end of his address to a one-day Anchorage conference on tribal issues held by the Alaska Federation of Natives and the National Congress of American Indians.
The idea of the council came after a recent tour of Alaska villages with rural policy adviser Paulette Schuerch, he said. That was part of an important learning experience, he said.
"I didn't fully appreciate the relationship that tribes have until I became governor, until I started hanging out with Paulette. And I do have a true appreciation for that now," Walker said.
The 11-member advisory group will work on education, health care, subsistence, energy, public safety, justice, wildlife and fisheries, economic development, housing, transportation, language and culture.
"I don't want to create another commission," Walker added. "But I do need some advice."
Walker was warmly received, with several rounds of applause during his speech and a standing ovation at the end of it.
But there are points of disagreement with tribes. Most notable is the contentious issue of whether the federal government may hold land in trust for Alaska tribes in the same way it holds such lands for tribes in the Lower 48.
Walker in August continued the state's efforts to overturn a federal court ruling that invalidated an Alaska exception to the lands-in-trust practice. The ruling presented the opportunity for "Indian Country" controlled by tribes in Alaska. The state is appealing that ruling, and the case is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The U.S. Department of Interior takes a different stance on the issue. The Interior Department issued a rule last December that makes Alaska tribes eligible to put their lands into the program, and it firmly backs use of that policy in the state, Lawrence Roberts, principal deputy secretary of Indian Affairs, told the conference.
"We are very interested in moving forward with that rule to take land into trust in Alaska," he said.
The Obama administration has been assertive in moving tribal lands into trust elsewhere in the nation, Roberts said. The administration has put over 300,000 acres of land into trust for the Lower 48, he said.
A variety of other subjects came up at Wednesday's conference, held on the eve of the big Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention. They included fish and game management, education, health care and state and federal budgeting woes.
Suicide prevention is a big priority for tribal members, said Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak. "I don't want my children and my grandchildren to kill themselves anymore," he said.
Tribal representatives told Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten that the state is charging too little in fees for trophy hunts, thus missing a useful revenue opportunity, and failing to properly assess the effects that sport hunters are having on caribou herds that are important to villagers' subsistence needs.
P.J. Simon of Allakaket said rural infrastructure needs have gone unmet for too long. He asked Roberts to take a message to President Obama about the 40 Alaska villages that still lack water and sewer service. "We're discovering water on Mars. We can't get water in 40 villages," he said. "Please bring that back to the president."