Alaska Senate approves bill formally recognizing Native tribes

Supporters of House Bill 123, the tribal-recognition bill, pose for a group photo after the Alaska Senate approved the bill on Friday, May 13, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska’s state government would formally recognize all of Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes under legislation passed Friday by the state Senate in a 15-0 vote.

If signed into law by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the measure will be mostly ceremonial. Lawmakers said it nonetheless represents an opportunity to respect Alaska Natives and tribal organizations that have historically been discriminated against by the state.

“I think the fundamental issue is a little bit of respect and recognition,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.

Some lawmakers said the measure, formally known as House Bill 123, could lead to further agreements between state and tribal organizations on a variety of topics.

“Now the work begins on defining what real government-to-government relationships should look like,” said La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, who supported the bill and watched it pass the Senate.

“And that’s the next part, that we’re looking forward to seeing how that actually happens,” she said.

The bill must return to the House for a procedural vote before it goes to Dunleavy. A spokesman for the governor said Dunleavy will review the bill when it reaches him.

Effect on ballot measure

The bill is almost identical to a tribal-recognition ballot measure headed to voters this fall. 

If Dunleavy signs the bill or allows the bill to become law without his signature, the ballot measure will be canceled under a provision of the Alaska Constitution that nullifies ballot measures if the Legislature passes a substantially similar law.

Legal analysis conducted by legislative attorneys concluded that the bill is similar enough. Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer would make the final determination.

Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson was one of the prime sponsors of the ballot measure and watched as the Senate voted.

He said organizers would be meeting later Friday and that the initiative “is now unnecessary.”

“The ballot initiative never should have happened. It was (because of) a lack of Legislature actions for the last few years,” he said.

Former Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, introduced a similar measure in 2020, but it failed to become law. Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, reintroduced it in 2021. 

Members of the Legislature, particularly Republicans, had previously worried that recognizing tribes could create a patchwork of land laws. Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said the fear was that the bill would create “230 individual nation-states” scattered across Alaska.

Shower, chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee, heard testimony on the bill and amended it slightly to meet non-Natives’ concerns about the issue.

Ultimately, he joined 14 other senators in support.

Though symbolic, said Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, recognition “does a whole lot because it provides dignity and respect.”

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said recognition, “will lead to further conversations” between the state and tribes. 

One example: Legislation near final passage in the House that would have the state partner with tribes through compacts in order to operate schools.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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