The backers of an initiative that would add formal recognition of Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes to state law turned in dozens of boxes of signature booklets to the Division of Elections’ Anchorage office on Wednesday, blowing past the 36,140-signature requirement.
The group, Alaskans for Better Government, turned in a whopping total of 56,230 signatures from throughout the state. Once the signatures are reviewed and certified, it will clear the way for The Alaska Tribal Recognition Act to appear on either the primary- or general-election ballot.
“We’ve gotten so many people who are pumped, excited about this, want to know how to help and be involved,” said Barbara ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Blake, one of the initiative’s primary sponsors in an interview with The Midnight Sun. “There’s a lot of excitement out there to see how strong Alaska can be once our sovereigns are all working together.”
Formal recognition of the state’s tribes has been a long-running goal of advocates working to improve the relationship between tribes and the state government. If enacted, it will not directly lead to any changes in the legal relationship between tribes and the state government, but Blake said it will go a long way to setting the tone for the relationship moving forward.
“I really see it as Alaskans acknowledging us. Up until this point, it’s been a consistent, ‘We’re going to pretend like we don’t see you and you don’t exist,’” she said. “The state of Alaska has always been our first indicator of what’s important and what’s not, even if we disagree with the leadership, and everyday citizens will usually take some adherence to what our state does. It’s long overdue that they deem recognition of Alaska’s first people and tribes as important.”
Blake credits a lot of the initiatives’ success to early work with Alaska Native groups and entities to gauge interest and support, which included receiving an endorsements from the Alaska Federation of Natives and Sealaska.
The state has made some steps toward improving the relationship with tribes, including adding Alaska Native languages as the state’s official languages and a compact that allows tribes to have a greater role in child welfare.
The Alaska Tribal Recognition Act initiative is similar to Bethel Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky’s House Bill 123, which passed out of the House with broad bipartisan support in May. It’s currently in the Senate, where it has yet to be assigned to committees. If the Senate does take up the measure during the upcoming legislative session and Legislature passes it, it would preempt the initiative from appearing on the ballot.
Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson, another one of the initiative’s primary sponsors, told the Alaska Federation of Natives during its annual conference that they’re not waiting on the Legislature—which has been and continues to be mired in discussions about the state’s budget—to act.
“A bill that did come forward from Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky to recognize tribes couldn’t make it because they were unable to really just get their business done,” Peterson said. “We thought it was better to just, let’s put this in the hands of the people.”
Even if the Legislature fails to take up the legislation, their adjournment date will determine which ballot the measure appears on. Initiatives appear on the first election held 120 days after the end of the regular session, which means the initiative will appear on the general election ballot if the Legislature adjourns after April 18.