WASHINGTON — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft of its first Alaska Native relations policy, which the agency says is an effort to inform employees who have not previously worked with Alaska Native communities and cultivate trust with Indigenous groups.
Fish and Wildlife already has a broader Native American relations policy. But the draft Alaska Native relations policy, which was released Nov. 3, outlines key Alaska-specific considerations including subsistence needs and unique federal policies like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The policy is intended to guide the agency’s employees as they enforce Alaska-related rules and regulations.
Crystal Leonetti, who led work on the new policy as the agency’s Alaska Native affairs specialist, said she hopes the first-of-its-kind document is widely used across the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I want it to be on people’s desks every day and to use it like a reference manual,” Leonetti said of the policy. “I think this one is precedent-setting. I don’t think there’s anything else like it.”
Leonetti, who is Yup’ik and the first Indigenous woman to work as a Native American liaison in the agency, collaborated with 12 representatives from Alaska Native tribes, corporations and organizations as well as other members of Fish and Wildlife to draft the policy.
Work on the Alaska Native relations policy started in 2016. After facing delays under the Trump administration, talks resumed in 2021 and the writing team weighed feedback from around the state during consultation meetings and listening sessions. The draft was released earlier this month, and the public can weigh in during a 30-day comment period that ends Dec. 5.
Leonetti said the agency’s work has long spurred tensions with Alaska Native people, pointing to frustrations about Fish and Wildlife’s fishing, hunting and land management regulations that have historically neglected Indigenous communities’ subsistence needs.
“So many of the things that Indigenous people believed were right and were ethical ways of relating to the land were illegal in the eyes of the government,” Leonetti said.
According to Leonetti, many agency employees come from the Lower 48 and have not previously worked with Alaska Native groups. She said that inexperience has been a historic barrier to cultivating positive relationships with Indigenous communities.
“They don’t know what they don’t know,” Leonetti said of the agency’s employees. “And decisions can be made that have a mistake that really is harmful to Indigenous people that they don’t even realize is causing harm.”
Sarah Obed, one of the policy writers and senior vice president for external affairs with Doyon Ltd., said that understanding the state’s landscape of Alaska Native corporations, organizations and tribes is crucial for federal employees to work effectively with Alaska Native individuals and groups.
“You want to understand what’s going to make you a successful employee when you’re going to be working with Alaska Native organizations? This (policy) will really help educate and inform you about how to have a thoughtful approach,” Obed said.
The agency requires weeklong Alaska Native relations training for Fish and Wildlife Service employees in Alaska. The Fish and Wildlife Service also formally apologized in 2018 for enforcing regulations in the 1960s and 1970s that prevented Alaska Natives from harvesting migratory birds and eggs.
“There is a certain level of distrust between tribes in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so they have been continuously working on that,” said Patty Schwalenberg, another policy writer and the executive director of the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council.
Jaeleen Kookesh, a policy writer and the vice president for policy and legal affairs of Sealaska, said the document might prompt some pushback from groups seeking greater input on Fish and Wildlife projects. However, she has heard from many Alaska Natives who spoke highly of the policy, calling it “one of the better policies they’ve seen from a federal agency.”
“That gave me confidence in the success of the policy going forward as it goes through public comment,” Kookesh said.
Reporter Riley Rogerson is a full-time reporter for the ADN based in Washington, D.C. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.
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