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Yukon-Kuskokwim residents debate creation of tribal government

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 25, 2014

BETHEL -- Two proposals to shake up the Alaska Native power structure in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region will get a close look next year, including one that could create the first new regional tribal government in decades, dozens of village representatives decided this week at a gathering in Anchorage.

The effort is controversial in the region and refuels an old fight. It is being guided by Calista Corp., the regional Alaska Native corporation for the Y-K Delta. But Calista leaders say any new direction will come from the people.

On Monday, what's being called the Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Committee met at the Egan Center in Anchorage to consider a new course. Of the region's 56 tribes, 45 participated as did 40 village corporations, according to Kirsten Kinegak-Friday, Calista associate general counsel.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim effort comes just as Gov.-elect Bill Walker, who already is giving new attention to tribal issues, is about to be sworn in.

The meeting at the Egan Center was closed to news reporters and the public. Leaders afterward described what happened.

On a voice vote, there was unanimous support among people from the Y-K Delta for a change in regional governance, Kinegak-Friday said.

Long-standing issues in the region -- alcoholism and suicide, fights over harvesting fish and game, large numbers of children in state foster care, a loss of cultural identity -- need new solutions, village representatives agreed at an earlier meeting in Bethel.

Attendees this week split over what direction to take. More than three-fourths supported a path that could lead to a new regional tribal government. Some 58 percent instead wanted to improve an existing regional nonprofit. Some wanted to do both.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim region has no borough government, and the delegates at the meeting didn't support that route, said Willie Kasayulie, chairman of Calista's board of directors and a leader of the movement for tribal governance. They also didn't support a fourth option, to do nothing.

"We wanted the villages to consider some form of entity to consolidate all of our voices into a single entity, to voice our concerns to state and federal agencies," Kasayulie said.

Calista has been working on rural governance over the past year, but an attempt to create a regional tribe has come up at least twice before and was rejected, say some of the leaders on the other side.

Leaders of two leading nonprofit organizations, the Association of Village Council Presidents and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., are opposed to the idea of a regional tribal government. YKHC runs the Bethel hospital and village clinics; AVCP is the Bethel-based regional nonprofit that among other things runs social service programs and Head Start centers.

Myron Naneng, AVCP president, said the effort appears designed to take sovereign powers away from village-based tribes, something that Calista leaders say isn't true. Neither YKHC nor AVCP participated in Monday's meeting at the Egan Center, though they were invited. YKHC's board of directors in January passed a resolution saying it was "strongly opposed" to any effort to create a regional tribe that would take away from the existing 58 tribes in the area served by the health corporation.

"A single regional tribe is not in the best interests of YKHC," the resolution said.

At their convention in 2013, AVCP delegates approved a resolution agreeing to work with other organizations for a regional tribal government. But there was little discussion on the proposal and 16 tribal councils or village corporations later took stands against a regional tribe, according to AVCP.

"There was really no discussion by the delegates," Naneng said. Only later did they realize they might be giving away power.

"If we had one regional tribal government that spoke on behalf of all the villages in the region, that would be only one voice," he said. Now each of the 56 villages covered by AVCP is its own voice and they can join together on issues, he said. Plus, they may not always agree.

Bethel's tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council, opposes a regional tribe but is monitoring the process. Its president, Gloria Simeon, sits on the Calista group steering committee.

Calista maintains the effort won't take away the power of individual tribes.

"The Y-K Delta Regional Committee believes that our quality of life, our economic prosperity, the protection of our essential subsistence rights and natural resources … and strengthening our political voice in relation to the U.S. federal and state governments can only occur if a strong regional government is created," said one of the proposals before the crowd this week.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim effort coincides with what could be significant changes in how the state government treats tribal organizations. Walker put an Alaska Native leader who has been out front on tribal authority in charge of his transition working group on intergovernmental relations.

The No. 1 priority of that group: Put tribal and state relations on "a formal government-to-government basis," said the subcommittee chairwoman, Liz Medicine Crow, president and chief executive of the First Alaskans Institute.

The group visualized a framework that participants called "the three Fs: friendly, formal and forever," Medicine Crow said.

Regional tribes already exist in Alaska, Kasayulie said. The Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope is one, recognized by the federal government in 1971, and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is another. It was founded in 1935 and restored to the list of recognized tribes in 1994.

The Y-K regional committee decided to hold a governance convention next March, likely in Bethel, to further explore the proposals.

If the region decides to create a regional tribe, a constitutional convention would need to be held.

Calista has committed $200,000 to explore regional governance.