‘A historic milestone’: Alaska formally recognizes Native tribes

The governor seated at a desk, holding up a signed bill, while people stand around him and clap
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy signs HB 123, the tribal recognition bill, at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Thursday signed a bill that formally acknowledges the sovereignty of Alaska’s 229 federally recognized Native tribes.

The bill signing event was held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where a large and emotional crowd included tribal leaders, state lawmakers and candidates running for elected office. Amid tears and laughter, Native leaders spoke about the legislation as a way to heal a painful past and create more opportunities for productive partnership with state government in the future.

Tiffany Zulkosky standing and speaking into a microphone
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, who sponsored HB 123, an Act providing for state recognition of federally recognized tribes, spoke to the crowd gathered at the Alaska Native Heritage Center to witness Gov. Mike Dunleavy sign the bill into law on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat, passed the Legislature in May with bipartisan support. Zulkosky, who is Yup’ik, on Thursday called the bill “a historic milestone” in advancing state-tribal relations.

The bill, she said, is “a statutory recognition of a simple truth — that tribes exist in Alaska.”

The bill states that “the history of tribes in the state predates the United States and predates territorial claims to land in the state by both the United States and Imperial Russia. Indigenous people have inhabited land in the state for multiple millennia, since time immemorial or before mankind marked the passage of time.”

It goes on to say that “it is the intent of the Legislature to exercise the Legislature’s constitutional policy-making authority and acknowledge through formal recognition the federally recognized tribes in the state. Passage of this Act is nothing more or less than a recognition of tribes’ unique role in the state’s past, present, and future.”

The Alaska Federation of Natives said in a statement that “the statute does not impact the existing legal status of Alaska Tribes, nor does it change the state’s responsibility or authority. However, it does recognize Alaska’s Indigenous people. This recognition will help unify our tribal governments with the state government.”

Zulkosky and other proponents of the measure say it will also ease a history of legal challenges between the state and tribes.

A row of people sitting in chairs and clapping
Two bills were signed into law at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)

Native leaders said that tribes in Alaska are already responsible for providing services for tribal members and others, relying on designated federal funding to boost education, health and infrastructure, among other services. But the state recognition, they said, could pave the way for better government relations between the state and tribes.

“If you live in rural Alaska and you can flush the toilet, thank your tribe, because it’s our money that has come in and done that for everyone,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

“Tribes are an economic force in Alaska. Hugely so,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent who previously served as speaker of the House. In that capacity, Edgmon led the creation of a legislative tribal affairs committee in 2019. Zulkosky served as the committee’s inaugural chair.

“Today is, in some ways, a culmination of where we’ve been trying to get, but in other ways, it’s the beginning of a journey,” Edgmon said, adding that his vision is that “tribes are not only going to be at the table, they’re going to be at the head of the table.”

Alaska follows several other states that have recognized tribes within their borders, including Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia.

There are more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. — over a third of which are in Alaska. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, federal tribal recognition carries with it federal funding opportunities, whereas state funding does not guarantee state funding.

Peterson was one of several Native leaders behind a ballot initiative that last year sought to put the question of tribal recognition to voters. The group collected the signatures needed to advance the question to voters, but the bill signing now means that initiative will remain off the November ballot.

“It was one of the quickest signature gathers we’ve ever seen. Why? Because Alaskans — not just Alaska Natives — knew it was time,” Peterson said. “Most were bewildered and dumbfounded that this wasn’t already in existence.”

The ballot initiative was launched after a legislative effort to pass a tribal recognition bill stalled in 2020 amid the pandemic that cut short the legislative session that spring. The following year, Zulkosky began advancing a new version of the bill.

“It’s really great Alaskans exercise their voice at the polls. But I think what’s more meaningful about legislative action is the Legislature is such a microcosm of different political philosophies, different perspectives,” Zulkosky said. Advancing the bill, she said, required having sometimes difficult conversations.

“We did not understand — some of us — how important this was to members of the Native communities of Alaska,” said Sen. Mike Shower, a Wasilla Republican, who helped advance the bill in the state Senate. “Moving forward, we will have the opportunity to expand and do so many things that we haven’t done.”

Attendees at the bill signing included some of the more experienced Alaska Native leaders — and a new generation.

A smiling woman holds two small children, who are clapping
Ida Nelson holds Royal, 1, and Chael, 3, while attending the bill signing at Alaska Native Heritage Center on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)

Ida Nelson, a tribal member from Igiugig, attended the ceremony with her young children, ages 3 and 1. The bill, she said, ensures that they will “still have tribal sovereignty when they grow up.”

Willie Hensley and Emil Notti, who were instrumental in forming the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1966 and passing the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, also celebrated the passage of the bill.

“It’s important to recognize that the bill was introduced by a Democrats, passed with bipartisan support, and signed by a Republican governor,” said Notti.

While Alaska follows at least 13 states that have recognized tribes within their borders, Dunleavy presented the bill as one setting Alaska apart from the Lower 48.

“We’ve had a couple rough years in the Lower 48,” he said, “in which statues were torn down, history was rewritten. But I think it’s a testament to us that in Alaska — we add things for a more complete history.”

Rhonda Pitka, chief of the Native village of Beaver, said she was excited about Dunleavy’s willingness to work with tribes and was eager to work on partnerships between tribal and state government.

“I was going to ask for his scheduler’s phone number so I can set up my first meeting, so we can really get to work. It’s been a challenge to get anything done,” Pitka said. Now, she says she envisions more “government-to-government consultation.”

The governer, standing, with a row of people seated behind him
Tribal bill signing at Alaska Native Heritage Center on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)

Alaska First Lady Rose Dunleavy, who is Alaska Native, also spoke Thursday, telling the audience that “we can’t forget that we aren’t just tribal members. We’re Americans and we are Alaskans.”

U.S. House candidate Mary Peltola, a Democratic former state lawmaker who was in attendance at the ceremony, said she was moved by Rose Dunleavy’s words. Peltola, who is Yup’ik, said she too felt the legislation highlighted her identity as both an Alaskan and a tribal member.

Peltola was not the only political candidate in attendance. Independent former Gov. Bill Walker, who is one of Dunleavy’s challengers in this year’s gubernatorial race, was also at Thursday’s bill signing.

Dunleavy on Thursday also signed a bill creating a state-tribal education compact, which is designed to give tribes greater control over education programs for tribal members.

Women and girls, some in traditional dress, dancing
Acilqug Yup’ik Dancers performed after the bill signing at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)
A row of seated men playing skin drums
Acilqug Yup’ik Dancers performed after the bill signing at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)

Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak who sponsored the bill, said it would create opportunities to incorporate Native cultures and languages into tribal school curriculums.

“I can’t tell you how impressive this is,” Stevens said about the standing-room-only audience gathered to watch the bill signing. “The last bill I had signed by the governor was a week and held ago there were two of us in the room — the governor and me. So this is really impressive to see those who care about the legislation that we are passing.”

This story was originally published by the Anchorage Daily News and is republished here with permission.

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