BETHEL — Representatives of more than a dozen tribal villages from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are in Bethel this week for a planned three-day constitutional convention, a step some leaders hope will lead to a regional tribal government.
Tribal activists have long sought such a government, which was first seriously considered back in 1976. But in a region the size of Indiana that is home to 56 federally recognized tribes, the challenge of uniting them under one government authority is daunting.
As the convention began Tuesday, 13 tribes had members present, including Akiak and Akiachak, Napaskiak and Napakiak, Eek and Kwethluk. The places with representatives ranged in size from Bethel, with a population of more than 6,000, to Paimiut, where no one lives year-round. Most of the tribal villages have 300 to 500 people.
Tribal members from each community will ultimately vote on whether to approve a tribal government, said Akiak's Mike Williams, one of the tribal leaders who helped organize the convention at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center. Only those that sign on will be part of it, said Harold Napoleon, whose tribal affiliation is with Paimiut on the Bering Sea, a place near Hooper Bay that was once home to a few families and now is a summer fish camp.
Those pushing a tribal government say the current system with state and federal control hasn't produced healthy, thriving communities. Maybe if Native people were in charge, it would be different — and better — for those worn down by residual trauma from disease, alcohol and suppression of culture by missionaries, said activists. A semi-nomadic culture where families moved season by season for wild foods and shelter was extinguished. Children were sent away to boarding schools. Now the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is struggling with rates of suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse that are worse than almost anywhere.
In the mid-1970s, when the Association of Village Council Presidents was formed as a nonprofit organization, elders saw it as the start of a regional tribal government, Napoleon said.
"We didn't finish the job," Napoleon said. "We decided we like things the way they are now. That is what we are saying by doing nothing."
The convention was called by tribes that attended a tribal conference in April.
About 50 people showed up for the start of this week's convention. The state Office of Children's Services and Alaska State Troopers were supposed to give a snapshot of the problems that now mar village life, but they didn't make it to the convention. Some village residents from the Yukon were held up by bad weather but might arrive late, Williams said. A Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. expert spoke on cultural trauma and loss. Donlin Gold mine gave an update.
The agenda for the convention calls for the tribes to move fast on a treaty among themselves to form a government. Tribal members would then decide whether to form a government at a Nov. 7 election, and also vote on a president and secretary to lead it.
Under a draft proposal, a tribal government eventually would be responsible for essential services and programs: education, public safety, courts, fish and game management, alcohol control and taxation. Each tribe's top elected leader would become part of a 56-member legislative council, under the draft.
"The government will assume these responsibilities after an orderly period of transition set by the Legislative Council," the proposal says.
If the tribal members decide to move forward, they will work on a constitution. Organizers have proposed either starting with one from 1976 that was drafted during the formation of AVCP, or fast-forwarding to a draft from 2015 that came through an effort led by Calista Corp., the region's Alaska Native corporation.
The Calista committee's draft constitution called for two legislative houses, a House of the People made up of representatives from tribal governments and a House of Organizations made up of representatives from institutions including Calista, AVCP and Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.
Williams said the earlier drafts are just starting points. Tribal members at the convention can go whatever way they decide, he said.
People shouldn't fear a regional tribe, he said. It's needed "to make us human again."