House keeps Tribal Affairs committee over Rep. Eastman’s objections

The House voted 36-1 to maintain the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs on Jan. 20, 2023.

The House near-unanimously voted to maintain the existence of the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs last Friday. The committee was formed in 2019 under former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and the bipartisan coalition as a place to focus on and highlight issues specific to tribes and Alaska Natives.

Because special committees have to be renewed every legislative session, the continued existence of the Tribal Affairs committee—along with the House Ways and Means Committee established under former House Speaker Louise Stutes—weren’t guaranteed, especially if the Republican majority was looking to erase the past six years of the bipartisan coalition.

Instead, the only person looking to eliminate the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs was none other than Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman, who complained that the committee wasn’t needed and unfairly excluded some people. (Eastman also has an established history of racism against Alaska Natives.)

“There were tribal issues that were raised in almost every single committee in this body and I think that’s the way that it should be. All of the issues dealing with tribes, dealing with Alaska Natives ought to be able to be discussed openly in all of our committees,” he said. “Likewise, I don’t think there should be any committee where any Alaskan doesn’t feel like they’re invited and interested to participate and so forth.”

Eastman also has an established history of making racist remarks against Alaska Natives and was ultimately censured for comments that suggested some women—particularly those living in rural Alaska—were happy to get pregnant so they could get Medicaid-funded travel to have abortions.

Edgmon stood to defend the committee, finding support from several members of the new Republican majority.

“I can tell you that some four years later, the entire Legislature’s understanding of what tribes mean to Alaska, what tribal affairs all about has risen exponentially,” he said. “Alaska tribes are here to stay. They’re very valuable members of Alaska as a whole.”

Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican who frequently gets pained with the Eastman-like brush, was particularly forceful that the committee should continue to exist. As a member of its first session in existence, Vance said she learned a lot on the committee and how it opened her eyes to underreported issues like missing, murdered indigenous women.

“I tell you I spent most of that time with tears streaming down my face,” she said. “One of the conversations that I had yesterday is this month, four Alaska Native women have gone missing, but who’s talking about that? I learned about those issues in the Tribal Affairs Committee. This committee is highly valuable, it’s talking about the things that doesn’t get talked about much in the media, doesn’t get talked about in my district. It’s not as common all over the state of Alaska, but it’s very important and it impacts every one of us.”

Last year, the Alaska Legislature voted to formally recognize tribes.

The vote on keeping the committee was 36-1.

Why it matters: It’s entirely possible that this outcome was part of the negotiations for the House majority, but I tend to think that over the past two sessions that the committee has proved its purpose and then some. It’s also important to note that the committee’s creation—unlike the creation of the Ways and Means committee—was not controversial. Then, like now, the only opposition at the time was Eastman. It’s worth noting, though, that the membership of both special committees has dwindled to just four for the Tribal Affairs committee and three for Ways and Means.

Follow the thread: The House floor session from Friday.

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