Time is running out for the Alaska Legislature to pass tribal recognition bill

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, speaks during a House floor session in the Alaska Capitol in Juneau on Feb. 23, 2020.
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, speaks during a House floor session in the Alaska Capitol in Juneau on Feb. 23, 2020. Zulkosky authored House Bill 123 which passed the House in January but has been stuck in its final Senate committee since Feb. 10. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Time is running out for the Alaska Legislature to pass a bill recognizing Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes. House Bill 123 faces just one last committee before it can be voted upon on the Senate floor. Most Democrat and Republican legislators have a reason to try to get the bill passed before the session ends.

If the bill passes, the State of Alaska will have to start recognizing Alaska’s tribes as sovereign nations. Tribes are inherently sovereign, and the United States federal government already recognizes them as such. The federal government engages with tribes on a nation-to-nation basis, but the state does not.

Bethel Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky authored the bill. It passed the House in January, but it’s been stuck in its final Senate committee since Feb. 10. It has been heard five times in the Senate State Affairs Committee, which is many more times than it was heard in other committees. It will be heard once more Thursday afternoon.

The bill must pass out of committee this week or the next to get heard on the Senate floor before the session ends. That requires the majority of the five committee members to approve the bill. The committee chair, Sen. Mike Shower, has expressed support for the bill. His aide told KYUK that there have been multiple committee hearings because Shower wants to make sure the other committee members understand it.

The most opposition has come from committee member Sen. Lora Reinbold. She said that she thinks 229 tribes is a lot, and she’s not sure about granting them sovereignty because she doesn’t understand how they get their members.

“AFN general counsel talked and I asked her, ‘How is a tribe defined? Is it a bloodline, etc.?’ And basically what she said is they’re moving away from the bloodlines. They’re moving away from the regional, but again, no one could tell me how exactly tribal members were chosen,” said Reinbold during a floor session on April 4.

Tribal sovereignty means that each tribe has the inherent authority to govern itself and make its own decisions about membership.

Sen. Scott Kawasaki is the lone Democrat on the committee. He said that Reinbold is a fringe voter and doesn’t represent the other three Republicans on the committee. The bill could still move out of committee without her support. Kawasaki said that it’s important that the Legislature pass this bill before the session ends. If they don’t, the bill will become a ballot measure.

The ballot measure could draw more Democratic voters to the polls during the midterm elections, which Republicans don’t want.

“If there were a large Native Alaskan contingency that went to the polls, that typically votes blue, then there could be the potential for some upset elections in certain regions. I think that that is on the minds of most of the Republican folks,” said Kawasaki.

But Kawasaki said that it could also work against Democrats. The ballot measure could draw voters who don’t support tribal Sovereignty and would vote against it.

An aide for Shower said that his office won’t say whether or not he intends to try to move the bill out of committee on May 5.

Kawasaki said that Shower is usually very diligent about telling committee members ahead of time whether or not he intends to move a bill. But Kawasaki said that there has been radio silence on HB 123 so far.

Republican and Democratic legislators from both the House and Senate have signed on to co-sponsor the bill, including Y-K Delta Sen. Lyman Hoffman.

KYUK - Bethel

KYUK is our partner station in Bethel. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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