Walker administration takes monumental strides in recognizing tribal sovereignty

Department of Health and Social Services Director Valerie Davidson smiles with Gov. Bill Walker during the signing of the Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact at AFN on Oct. 19, 2017. (Photo by Governor's Press Office)

It’s been a watershed week for the state of Alaska and the more than 200 Alaska Native tribes and tribal organizations, marked by a ground-breaking agreement expanding how tribes can be involved in child welfare cases and a legal opinion that recognizes the sovereignty and legal existence of Alaska Native tribes.

Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth issued a formal attorney general opinion today that gives greater legal grounds for tribal sovereignty. The Associated Press reports the matter was taken up at the request of Gov. Bill Walker, “who had heard concerns from his tribal advisory council about a perceived lack of recognition of the status of tribal sovereignty in the state.”

The opinion, on its face, seeks to bust common misconceptions about the the sovereignty and legal status of Alaska Native tribes and tribal organizations. Lindemuth wrote that many wrongly believe the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act terminated tribal sovereignty in Alaska, when all it did was end tribal claims to land.

“The current state of the law is clear,” Lindemuth wrote, “there are 229 sovereign tribes within Alaska.”

It also takes stock of existing legal precedent regarding the legal authority of tribes to set up governments and courts, including which topics tribal courts have authority. It also explores the issue of Indian Country, a federal term for reservations and other Native American communities, in Alaska. Though ANCSA eliminated all but one reservation in Alaska, Lindemuth says there are other Alaskan Native-owned lands—like the one million acres granted in the Alaska Native Allotment Act of 1906 and the currents lands into trust program—where Indian Country could find legal footing.

Why it matters

The real-world implications of Lindemuth’s opinion aren’t immediately clear, but one legal expert described it as cementing the progress the Walker administration has made in relationships between the state of Alaska and Alaska Native tribes, recognizing tribes’ right to self-determination. It will also serve as a legal groundwork for interactions between state agencies and tribes moving forward, with some portions of the legal opinion giving clear guidance to state agencies that are looking at entering into legal agreements with a tribe or tribal organization.

The second—perhaps less immediately obvious—purpose of the opinion is that by spelling out the sovereignty and legal status of tribes it’ll make it much more clear and newsworthy if a new administration attempts to rollback any of the agreements inked under the Walker administration.

Walker’s administration has been the most progressive when it comes to recognizing the sovereignty and legal status of tribes, and it’s a legacy that he’s likely keen on protecting into the future. The administration has inked an agreement that allows tribal courts to handle an expanded set of cases and this week signed an historic first-of-its-kind agreement regarding child welfare.

Compact on child welfare

The annual AFN convention in Anchorage kicked off with the signing of an historic agreement between the state of Alaska and Alaska Native organizations that would allow tribes to directly provide and operate child welfare programs. The compact allows Alaska Native tribes or regional organizations to begin providing child welfare programs for both member and non-Native children within a defined area.

The agreement is the first of its kind in the country and is the product of eight months of negotiations between the state and nearly 17 tribes or tribal organizations.

“While we’ve had many successes to which we’re really proud of, none of them have really turned the curve in the significant way we really want to for children in terms of improving those outcomes,” said Alaska OCS Director Christy Lawton. “We think the compact is the way to do it.”

According to statistics given by the state, “only 19 percent of Alaska children are Native or American Indian, 55 percent of Alaska children in out-of-home foster care are of Native decent, and 61 percent of Alaska Native children in foster care will ultimately be placed in non-Native homes.” The move was described by supporters as a way to keep Alaska Native children, their families and their culture connected throughout their involvement with the child welfare system.

“It’s about time,” said Val Davidson, the commissioner of Health and Social Services who’s Alaska Native, at the convention.

Gov. Bill Walker also recognized Francine Eddy Jones with the Shirley Demientieff Award. Jones is the Director of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Tribal Family & Youth Services Department in Juneau, Alaska. Jones worked closely on the compact and during her acceptance speech said she found out on the last days of the compact negotiations and was honored to be receiving the award shortly before the compact’s signing.

“The compact will transform Alaska’s child welfare system and empower tribes to assume more responsibilities in providing provide culturally relevant services in the child welfare arena across our great state of Alaska,” she said.

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