Politics

New ballot measure would require Alaska to formally recognize Native tribes

Three Alaska Native leaders have proposed a ballot measure that would require the state of Alaska to formally recognize Native tribes within its boundaries.

The measure is now under legal analysis by the Alaska Division of Elections and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer. If the measure is certified by the state, backers will have until the start of the 2022 legislative session to gather 36,140 signatures, the amount needed to place it on the ballot next fall.

The measure is identical to House Bill 123, a piece of legislation from Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, that passed the state House earlier this year. According to a legal analysis, it “will not have any legal impact on the relationship between the state and tribes.”

‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake of Juneau, one of the measure’s sponsors, said backers believe the measure is worthwhile, even if it is mostly ceremonial.

“As I see it, this is an opportunity for two ... sovereign governments that work simultaneously in our state of Alaska to have a better working relationship with one another, instead of consistently being at odds as to whether or not the state of Alaska is going to acknowledge the existence of tribes,” she said.

She said tribes have been consistently asking for recognition and that “this is at the top of many, many people’s agenda in terms of what needs to happen as a next step.”

The other two sponsors, also from Southeast Alaska, are La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow and Chaa yaa eesh Richard Peterson.

Peterson is the president of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and Medicine Crow is president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute. All three said they are sponsoring the measure on their own, and not on behalf of their groups.

Blake said that as the Legislature deals with budget issues, “their ability to focus on things that are necessary, like tribal recognition, tribal acknowledgement, are just not placed at the center and forefront.”

That makes a ballot measure necessary, she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court and the Alaska Supreme Court have repeatedly ruled that federally recognized tribes — Alaska has 229 — are sovereign governments.

Medicine Crow said the measure would be “about respect and solidifying a relationship” between the state and the tribes that live within its boundaries.

The three sponsors said they intend to talk with Native communities across the state and could withdraw the measure if it is poorly received. But given the time constraints to put it in front of voters in 2022, they felt they needed to act now.

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