Alaskans might see tribal recognition on the 2022 ballot

Tlingit and Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson in his office. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer has certified an initiative that would require the state of Alaska to officially recognize all of Alaska’s federally recognized tribes.

The action means a group called Alaskans for Better Government can start collecting signatures to put the measure before voters next year. The group is chaired by President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

“As we try to build communities, build a better Alaska, it’s about relationships,” said Peterson. “And so the fact that the state of Alaska doesn’t recognize us currently is kind of a barrier in the building blocks, right? So that’s what it really comes down to.”

The federal government recognizes 229 Alaska tribes. That recognition acknowledges that the tribes are sovereign and have a government-to-government relationship with the feds.

In a legal opinion on the initiative, an Alaska assistant attorney general said it’s not clear that recognition would have any legal effect on the relationship between the state and the tribes. But he said there’s nothing unconstitutional about the proposal.

Organizers of the initiative say state recognition is hugely symbolic but would have practical impact, too. Barbara Wáahlaal Gíidaak Blake noted that a lot of tribes are in places with no other form of local government.

Barbara Blake, senior adviser to Gov. Bill Walker, listens as Andrew Kitchenman, a reporter for KTOO and Alaska Public Media, interviews her about House Concurrent Resolution 19. The resolution urges the Governor to declare a native language emergency.
Barbara Wáahlaal Gíidaak Blake in 2018 when she was a senior adviser to former Gov. Bill Walker. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

“And when trying to do business with our communities when there’s a lack of municipal governments, a lot of state departments will choose to just ignore having conversations with the local people when coming in to do any kind of work in our communities,” Blake said. “And so it does create somewhat of a barrier.”

A bill to require state recognition passed the state House this spring but wasn’t brought up in the Senate.

To get on the 2022 ballot, initiative organizers will have to collect more than 36,000 signatures.

Alaska Public Media

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