House passes landmark legislation to formally recognize Alaska’s tribes

The Alaska Capitol Building. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

The Alaska House overwhelmingly voted to pass a bill that would give Alaska’s tribes formal recognition in state law, a measure that several Alaska Native leaders say would be a significant step in repairing and advancing the state’s relationship with tribes.

House Bill 221 by Anchorage Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp said the bill is intended to solidify recent efforts for the state and tribes to work more closely on issues like child welfare, public safety, criminal justice and education.

“All these fractures in our society are better healed when we come together as a people that recognize each other, recognize our identity and recognize our purpose,” he said when the bill was first introduced on Friday.

Several Alaska Native lawmakers spoke in favor of the measure, saying they’ve long been frustrated by the state’s lack of recognition of tribes and their contributions to Alaska.

“Our state has had a very mixed history when it comes to working with our tribal governments. We’ve been fortunate that this administration and the previous administration have acknowledged tribes and worked very cooperatively with them but that hasn’t always been the case,” said Rep. John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue. “It’s a little surreal for me to be advocating for the simple acknowledgement and recognition of our tribal governments because for my entire life our tribes have been a very consistent and rock-solid part of the state. It’s like having a formal acknowledgement of the existence of Denali or something like that, it’s just a basic feature of reality.”

Alaska is home to 229 federally recognized tribes, the most of any state in the country, and in recent years they’ve had the opportunity to take on more roles in their communities with new agreements between the state over things like child welfare and tribal courts.

“I can go on and on about the ways that tribes have helped the state. At the end of the day this bill is a simple, powerful statement that this Legislature recognizes our tribes, recognizes the value that they bring to the state,” Lincoln said. “Refusing to acknowledge their existence is so hard to fathom because it’s refusing to acknowledge a basic part of reality. To me, it’s a damaging position.”

A handful of far-right Republicans opposed the measure, saying that it would be better served as a resolution and it shouldn’t be codified in state law. Others worried that it would lead to special treatment of Alaska Natives.

The bill only formally states Alaska’s recognition of federal tribes.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, said the fears that it went further were unfounded. She said, though, that the generational trauma inflicted upon Alaska Natives by the state is very real and very recent.

“We talk a lot about how Alaska is home to nearly half of the federally recognized tribes in the country, but I want to pause for a moment and reflect on that statistic. Despite that, Alaska in some areas has only been one generation removed from assimilation. My father in his early education experience in Alaska was told he could not speak his Yupik language in school. We should not minimize the struggle in history that our government, whether state or federal, has posed to our First People,” she said, noting that the boarding schools are often glossed over as a “rocky relationship.” “These are real. This history is real.”

Zulkosky is the chair of the House Tribal Affairs Committee, which is the first of its kind in the Alaska Legislature. To the detractors, she said the legislation will go a long way to improving the state’s working relationship with tribes.

“Just by seeing and acknowledging the existence of a people whether it’s in the constitution or the statute does not diminish the state’s sovereignty,” she said. “I want to say that seeking to further our relationship with Alaska tribes helps to bridge both historical and political divisions while also providing opportunities for the state to deepen its relationship with Alaska’s First People. Recognizing the unique history and value that tribes bring to Alaska makes both the state of Alaska and our tribes stronger.”

The legislation passed the House on a 31-5 vote.

It now heads to the Senate for consideration.

The legislation

The bill has two main sections worth highlighting:

LEGISLATIVE FINDINGS AND INTENT. 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. (b) 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.

Article 2. Intergovernmental Relations with Tribes. The state recognizes the special and unique relationship that the United States government has with federally recognized tribes and specifically recognizes the relationship between the United States government and federally recognized tribes in the state. The state recognizes all tribes in the state that are federally recognized under 25 U.S.C. 5130 and 5131. Nothing in this section diminishes the United States government’s trust responsibility or other obligations to federally recognized tribes in the state or creates a concurrent trust relationship between the state and federally recognized tribes.

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