Do Alaska Native tribes posses sovereignty?
A simple question. And, in Indian Country, the answer is usually a quick “yes.” Of course. But in Alaska just asking this question is an act of defiance. The state and many of its citizens have assumed, planned, and operated on the premise that tribal powers no longer exist, so the state is free to impose its will on Alaska Natives.
A simple question that’s framed by dueling narratives. One story says the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act — ANCSA — was a termination bill that should have extinguished tribal sovereignty. The other counters saying ANCSA was primarily a land settlement. A land bill that did create native corporations but did not answer questions about governance.
A simple question with multiple answers. Alaska, however, has stuck to a refusal to recognize tribal authority and has spent millions of dollars on litigation. In one such case, a federal court recognized tribal communities’ authority to put land into trust, removing lands from state control and a recognition of Indian Country (a status similar to reservations in other states). Alaska appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Then in November a new governor was elected. Bill Walker, an independent, and he promised a new way of doing business. A Walker transition team report said: “Where no tools exist, they must be created, such as establishing a mechanism (e.g., legislation, constitutional amendment, etc.) where Alaska tribes – as sovereign nations they are – negotiate and partner with the state of Alaska on an officially recognized, permanent government-to -government basis.”
But on Feb. 9, the state of Alaska fell into its old patterns. It asked the appeals for a six-month stay to rethink its policy followed by some sort of status report. The state said: “The central issue in this appeal is purely legal: whether the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act precludes the creation of new trust land in Alaska. However the decision whether to continue to pursue a judicial remedy, seek congressional action, or determine and implementing strategies for integrating trust land into Alaska’s ownership pattern — with the resulting impacts to state regulatory jurisdiction — are policy matters entrusted to a state administration that was inaugurated only a few weeks ago. As the state’s chief executive, the governor has the authority and obligation to frame state policy.”
I can think of a lot of governors who like the notion of absolute state authority, especially when it conflicts with tribal communities. But the hashtag would read: #NeverGonnaHappen. Native Americans have a right, even an obligation, to govern ourselves. (more…)