Politics

Tribal sovereignty ballot initiative smashes signature-gathering threshold weeks ahead of schedule

A campaign to formalize the government-to-government relationship between federally recognized tribes in Alaska and the state is moving forward. On Wednesday, organizers submitted 56,200 signatures in support of the measure to the Division of Elections, far more than the 36,140 required to put it before voters on November’s statewide ballot.

“The amount of support we’ve gotten throughout this process has been amazing,” said Barbara ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Blake, one of the co-sponsors of the Alaskans for Better Government campaign.

According to organizers, signatures came from all 40 legislative districts around the state.

“This puts us in a state of trusting that Alaskans are going to step up for Indigenous people,” Blake said.

The measure would formalize in state statute the peer relationship between tribes and other government entities, an arrangement already acknowledged by Alaska’s courts and the federal government. The legal foundations of tribal sovereignty in U.S. date back almost two centuries. But according to Blake, the state of Alaska sues its federally recognized tribes over jurisdictional disputes more often than any other state in the nation, typically losing in the courts after costly litigation drains resources from both sides.

By formalizing the state’s recognition of tribal sovereignty, supporters say doors will open for more efficient, effective implementation of measures that benefit tribal members at the local level without substantially altering state laws.

“What this does is codify what’s already recognized by the federal government,” said state Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky.

The Bethel-based Democrat represents the House district covering the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, and she sponsored a bill with nearly identical language to the ballot initiative. The Alaskans for Better Government campaign is the second in what is essentially a two-pronged approach toward the same goal, and organizers are largely agnostic about which route ultimately succeeds, though the voter initiative currently looks more feasible. Last May, Zulkosky’s bill received overwhelming support in the House with a vote of 35 to 4. But it is unlikely to advance in the upper chamber during the upcoming session.

“The path towards yes looks a lot different in the Senate than it does in the House,” Zulkosky said.

She and other supporters say that if the measure is approved, it will give tribal entities and the state overall more tools for dealing with complex major issues like child welfare, public safety and transportation. They point to the Alaska Tribal Health Compact as a prime example. The 1994 agreement directs federal dollars into Alaska that are overseen, administered and implemented by tribal entities as large as the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, and as tiny as the clinics operating in almost every rural community in the state.

Zulkosky, who outside of her legislative duties is employed by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., said it was those government-to-government relations in the health care sector that allowed tribal entities to administer COVID-19 vaccine doses to rural residents more quickly than they were delivered to almost any other group of Americans.

Comparable arrangements could be possible in the years ahead, Zulkosky said, with tribes working to leverage federal money for government functions currently overseen by the state.

“How do we stretch every dollar at a time when Alaska’s Legislature is trying to resolve fiscal issues?” Zulkosky asked.

The initiative has backing from some of the largest and most powerful Alaska Native groups and corporations, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, Sealaska and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, among others.

Blake said that the group has not seen any organized opposition to the ballot initiative yet.

During a brief debate on Zulkosky’s House bill, only two lawmakers spoke out against it, though few of the objections were substantive.

“I am generally a fan of local control, local government. However, it’s not clear to me at this time how much authority is being granted, (and) what the long-term significance could be,” said Wasilla Republican Rep. Christopher Kurka during debate. He’s now running for governor.

Organizers say that even if the measure is approved it will not have major day-to-day impacts for most Alaskans, nor, Zulkosky said, will it “significantly change the dynamic of the legal relationship that tribes have with their members.”

As state officials certify signatures for the measure, the campaign says it will begin focusing on adding members to its steering committee, building coalitions and raising funds.

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