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Alaska Legislature

Alaska lawmakers weigh bill requiring state recognition of tribes

A bill moving through the Legislature would require state recognition of Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes.

Supporters say the measure is needed to encourage better collaboration and consultation between the state and tribes; formally acknowledge Alaska tribes’ sovereignty, history, culture and contributions; and potentially allow them to access additional resources, Indian Country Today reported.

“By supporting this bill, you are uplifting these unique and resilient people that have been here for 10,000 years,” Brooke Woods, of the Athabascan community of Rampart, told the House State Affairs Committee earlier this month.

Alaska has 40% of the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes.

As of 2016, 63 tribes had state recognition in 11 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Having both federal and state recognition can foster government-to-government relationships and in some cases qualify tribes for federal and state support, the organization said.

First Alaskans Institute CEO and President La Quen Náay Liz Medicine Crow said ignoring Alaska tribes’ status is undermining the state’s ability to thrive.

“We’re hindering ourselves, you know?” said Medicine Crow, who is Haida and Tlingit. “And I look forward to the day when the state finally realizes that the Native people here are not its enemy.”

Liz Medicine Crow, president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute, speaks during the Elders and Youth Conference at the Dena'ina Center on Oct. 16, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

She cited the $2 billion statewide Alaska tribal health system as an example of a successful partnership.

If the state and tribes worked hand in hand across the spectrum of public services, “imagine what we could do with education, with transportation, with justice, with public safety, corrections, all of these services, right?” Medicine Crow said.

She said state recognition would also cut down on the sometimes dramatic swings in state policy with each new governor.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, Yup’ik, a Democrat representing the Yukon-Kuskokwim region in western Alaska, said many policies adopted by the Legislature can be traced to a lack of a solid understanding of the history of Alaska Native people, communities and tribes.

One of the effects is “tribes that consistently have the state of Alaska suing them for various issues, be it resource development or subsistence management or insert anything for the above,” said Zulkosky, who chairs the House Tribal Affairs Committee.

State recognition is an important part of a long journey of healing and restoration, supporters say.

“We have so many tribes who have so many smart people,” said Tanana Chiefs Conference General Counsel Natasha Singh, Koyukon Athabascan. “We’ve done so much without state recognition that with state recognition, we’re going to just do awesome.”

Critics in the past have said the bill is largely symbolic and questioned the need for a state law rather than a resolution or citation. They also voiced concerns that it might limit state or federal jurisdiction, though the measure was later amended to explicitly say it wouldn’t.

Besides Zulkosky, the main sponsor, House Bill 123 has 11 co-sponsors: eight Democrats, two independents and a Republican. It has passed out of the House Tribal Affairs and State Affairs committees and is awaiting a possible vote on the House floor. The Legislature is targeting to adjourn May 19.

When asked whether Gov. Mike Dunleavy would sign the bill if the Legislature adopts it, a spokesperson said the governor has a policy of not commenting on legislation until it completes the legislative process and arrives at his office.

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