After a legislative effort stalled in the state House this year, Alaska’s tribes are working on a ballot initiative that would ask voters whether they should receive state recognition.
The group leading the effort, Alaskans for Better Government, says they’ve collected more than 53,000 supporting signatures — surpassing the required 36,140 signatures to get on the ballot later this year.
The group plans to submit the names to the state’s Division of Elections in mid-January for it to verify.
To reach the signature requirement, canvassers have been posted at city hotspots over the last few months like the Loussac Library, plus various grocery stores and shopping centers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and throughout the state.
Tabitha Aliralria is one of those canvassers. Aliralria, who is Alaska Native, said she was struggling to find work a few months ago when she bumped into someone collecting signatures.
“I was out shopping with one of my friends and I came across one of the canvassers, and that’s when it caught me off guard. And I was like, ‘Are you guys hiring?’” she said. She got the job the next day.
The signature effort pressed forward after the Alaska Tribal Recognition Act stalled in the state Senate last year. It passed in the state House. Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, introduced the bill. Its supporters say the recognition of the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes would establish a symbolic government-to-government relationship.
“Right now, the way things are status quo between tribes and the state of Alaska, when we enter into some sort of discussion, it’s almost starting at a deficit level,” said La quen náay Elizabeth Medicine Crow, president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute.
She said Indigenous people in Alaska have waited long enough to be viewed as equal in the eyes of the state government
“I mean, it’s 2021, it’s almost 2022. We’re at a different place in our understanding and relationship with one another,” she said. “It’s kind of like latent old school thinking that there’s going to be some sort of divestiture of something.”
Medicine Crow is a co-sponsor of the ballot initiative that would ask voters whether the state should officially recognize all of Alaska’s federally recognized tribes. The other co-sponsor is Chaylee Éesh Richard Peterson, the president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Together with other tribal leadership in the state, they formed Alaskans for Better Government. Peterson said state recognition wouldn’t cost anything. Instead, it could clear a path for more federal funds for the state and tribes.
“You know, I think right now there’s millions of dollars that fall off the table because there’s not formal tribal recognition, especially in the areas of education and public safety,” he said.
At least four federal agencies including the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services have the authority to provide additional funding to tribes that have state recognition.
“We could bring more Department of Justice funding into our rural communities where there’s some real inequities in public safety,” said Peterson. “But we can’t even get off the ground if we don’t have a formal relationship. If we can’t say to each other, ‘We respect each other and that we can work from a common place,’” he said.
After an application for the initiative was approved by the state Division of Elections and the Department of Law in October, canvassers started collecting signatures to get state tribal recognition on the 2022 ballot.
Aliralria said she’s gotten all kinds of feedback from people she encounters in downtown Anchorage.
“I’ve gotten good responses like, ‘Yeah, we’ll do this. We’ll support you. I’ve got Native people in my family. Yeah, this is a good thing. We need it.’ And I’ve had people, you know, tell me, ‘F- off, this isn’t a good thing. Go die.’ So it’s been a variety pack of, you know, hearing a lot of things,” she said.
She said some of the more unsavory comments seem to be in keeping with racial tension and a fierce political climate that’s playing out in communities across the U.S.
Nearly half of all tribes recognized by the federal government are based in Alaska. According to the National Commission on State Legislatures, roughly 10% of federally recognized tribes across the U.S. also have state recognition.
In Alaska, Peterson said, it’s impossible to ignore the Indigenous population.
“It’s fundamentally wrong that we’re not even recognized by the state government. Yet they talk about us all the time, we’re in every bit of [legislation], anything to do with especially rural Alaska,” he said. “But go to Anchorage, our biggest metropolitan city, and everywhere you turn, our presence is there.”