Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Alaska”

Obama in Alaska

trahantlogo1

President Barack Obama’s visit to Alaska was inspiring. I eagerly watched everything I could see online: The official restoration of the name Denali, his powerful words on the climate, his visits to Resurrection Bay, and his interaction with Alaska’s Native communities. I especially loved the Yup’ik dancing (and the president showing his moves).

But there is one story that’s missing from the national accounts of the president’s visit: the role of tribes in determining Alaska’s future. The president himself referred to this debate in several ways. The first mention was in his statement to tribal leaders when he said: “My administration also is taking new action to make sure that Alaska Natives have direct input into the management of Chinook salmon stocks, something that has been of great concern here.” Then a few sentences later he promised to follow up on “everything from voting rights to land trusts.”

Those last two words are the story that needs to be told. The president’s language was a bit off. It’s not land trusts, but land into trust. This issue goes far beyond the status of land; it’s about the nature of sovereignty in Alaska. It’s complicated but basically there are two competing narratives that need to be resolved into a single story.

One version says that tribes ceased to exist when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (or ANCSA) became law in 1971. This story says that Alaska is the primary vehicle for all government in Alaska. The state sets the rules for education, law enforcement, land use, etc., etc.

But there is another reading of this history. This narrative says ANCSA was primarily a land settlement act. It did create a different structure, such as establishing Native corporations, but it did not end the right of Native people to determine their own future.

This second story arc began shortly after ANCSA. As a Native American Rights Fund attorney Robert Anderson said in 1973: “….our work in Alaska is really on the cutting edge of Indian Law. We are establishing for essentially two hundred tribes, that they are recognized on the same level as those in the lower forty-eight (states) and that they have all the powers and authority.”

That story has multiple chapters that include the recognition of those tribes by the federal government, the push for Native hunting and fishing rights as well as the management of fish and game, law enforcement, and the most recent episode, a debate about land into trust. It’s this last issue that’s hot right now and worth a state and national conversation.

A few days before the president’s visit, Alaska’s new governor pursued an appeal that would prevent the Interior Department from taking land into trust, thus creating “Indian Country.”

The case involves Native villages Akiachak, Chalkyitsik, Chilkoot Indian Association, the tribe in Haines, and Tuluksak. These tribes seek to govern on issues ranging from law enforcement to zoning. The same powers held by other tribes. Indeed, the recognition (and expansion) of tribal authority was one of the main recommendations by the federal Indian Law and Order Commission, a bipartisan presidential and congressional task force.

But that’s unacceptable to Alaska. Simply put: The State wants to block tribal sovereignty.

As the state itself said:

“When the federal government takes land into trust, it holds it for the benefit of an individual Alaska Native or a Tribe. It is the federal government’s position that this land becomes Indian country—a legal status that can be likened to an Indian reservation. Currently, Alaska has only one reservation—the Metlakatla Indian Community’s reservation on the Annette Islands Reserve. Indian reservations are generally exempt from state jurisdiction, including taxation, except when Congress specifically authorizes such jurisdiction.

“If lands are put into trust in Alaska, the exact scope of federal, state, and tribal powers on trust lands would be played out as specific factual scenarios develop. Alaska would retain some civil and criminal powers over trust lands because Alaska is a P.L. 280 state. But generally, the federal government has the power to manage tribal and individual land that it holds in trust. The federal government will potentially have powers to approve and cancel leases of tribal trust land; as well as to govern the leasing of mineral resources (including oil and gas), regulate certain fishing activities, manage timber resources, issue grazing permits, and deal with certain water rights and irrigation matters on trust land. And Tribes have jurisdiction over civil and regulatory matters occurring on trust land. Gaming can occur on certain trust land in accordance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

This is twisted. The state fears tribal authority. Then, this is not a new position. The one constant theme from the past four decades is that Alaska favors litigation over negotiation. And, when Alaska Natives win, the state appeals until every avenue is exhausted. This is a tired approach.

Indeed, since the Interior Department announced rules in December 2014 the state hasn’t had a formal consultation process about lands into trust, held public hearings or even set up informal town halls. This was the ideal time for a conversation about the future. (The state says it’s still talking. That’s rich. While we’re suing you, let’s negotiate, ok?)

What’s particularly disappointing about this chapter is that the new governor, Bill Walker, promised a different ending. I had a conversation with him during a public forum at the University of Alaska Anchorage last August where he said tribal-state relations would improve. And that’s been mostly true. The governor has been fantastic on many issues,especially the expansion of Medicaid. But on this big one, the future of tribes in Alaska, well, it’s back to court.

This is the story that the rest of the country needs to hear.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Alaska, Andrus and Carter

carlsonlogo1

Former President Jimmy Carter, the best ex-president this country has ever had, is suffering from liver cancer and could be crossing the Jordan River soon. He is now 90 years old and just finished his 25th book. The Carter Center at Emory University in Atlanta has become a model for the good works a former president can do both in this country and around the world.

Without question the top achievement legislatively from the four years President Carter held the wheel was passage of the Alaskan lands legislation which overnight doubled the size of the National Park system and the Fish and Wildlife system of bird refuges. Almost 100 million acres, including entire ecosystems received protection.

I have a new book out, Eye on the Caribou, published by Ridenbaugh Press that tells the inside story of the critical role played by former four term Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus in securing the historic legislation while serving as President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of the Interior.

I’ve long thought that Governor Andrus has never been given the full credit he deserved for the critical role he played in leading the way to passage of the greatest single piece of conservation legislation in American history, so I set out to make sure the history books properly reflect this excellent piece of his legacy.

This new book joins a well reviewed biography (Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor) on the governor published in 2011, and a book of 13 essays (Medimont Reflections) in 2013 that covered other issues and political figures Governor Andrus and I worked on during my 40 years of public involvement.

Andrus has always been quick to say that “success has a thousand fathers and mothers” and has especially singled out the Alaska Coaliton and the critical role played by Chuck Clusen, Brock Evans and Doug Scott for their contribution to successful passage of the legislation.

Future historians will find some heretofore little known jewels of information in this latest book. For example, during the summer of 1978 when Andrus and President Carter spent four days fly fishing and floating the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River, they settled on the fall back strategy of President Carter using his authority under the Antiquities Act to make the largest national monuments in history. They guessed correctly this would bring the Alaska delegation back to the bargaining table to undue the more restrictive form of protection monument status requires.

Other examples of anecdotes in the book include a heretofore unreported 1979 secret meeting between Alaska Governor Jay Hammond and Secretary Andrus in which the two by themselves spent a day fishing at some of Hammond’s favorite fishing sites in and around Lake Clark and Lake Iliamna. The two would set aside their fishing rods from time to time, get out their maps and pretty much settled on the boundaries of the soon-to-be new additions to the Nationl Park Service and to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s system of bird refuges.

The book also details the massive cross-over vote in 1980 orchestrated by the late Senator Ted Stevens to defeat in the Democratic primary his senatorial colleague, Mike Gravel. Stevens held Gravel directly responsible for the circumstances leading to his wife Ann’s death in a plane crash on December 4th, 1978.

The book also details the adverse impact the legislation had for the owner of a properly proven up mining claim owned by a partnership that included a Spokane exploration geologist, Wallace McGregor.

Even universally acclaimed legislation can still have adverse impacts on some people, and while Mr. McGregor’s dispute with the Park Service over his inholding is complex the fact remains that 40 years have gone by without any compensation to them for a de facto taking.”

The book retails for $16.95 and is now available directly from the publisher, Ridenbaugh.com, or Amazon.com, or directly from the author, or at your nearby Hastings outlet in Idaho and at Aunties in Spokane, as well as The PaperHouse in St. Maries.

Expanding Alaska Medicaid

trahantlogo1

These days “new” money is hard to find. That’s the kind of money that’s added to a budget, money that allows programs to expand, try out new ideas, and look for ways to make life better. Most government budgets are doing the opposite: Shrinking. Calling on program managers and clients alike to do more with less.

That’s why the news from Alaska last week is so exciting: Alaska’s new governor announced the expansion of Medicaid and this will significantly boost money for the Alaska Native medical system. Indeed, the significance of this announcement to the Indian health system was clear when Alaska’s Gov. Bill Walker and Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson made the announcement (pictured) at the Alaska Native Medical Center on July 16. The governor took this action using executive authority because the Alaska legislature had failed to even vote on legislation to accept Medicaid.

The governor says Medicaid expansion would reduce state spending by $6.6 million in the first year, and save over $100 million in state general funds in the first six years. “Every day that we fail to act, Alaska loses out on $400,000,” the governor said. “With a nearly $3 billion budget deficit, it would be foolish for us to pass up that kind of boost to Alaska’s economy.”

walker medicaid screenshot-2015-07-20-11-31-37

“We know Gov. Walker has worked tirelessly to expand Medicaid since he came into office on December first,” Davidson said at the news conference. It was one of the campaign promises made by the independent governor. “He included it in the budget. He introduced a bill both in the House and in the Senate side. It was a subject of both special sessions. And, it’s the right thing do do for Alaska.”

The expansion of Medicaid is one of key components of the Affordable Care Act. It’s critical a tool for the Indian health system because it opens up a revenue channel for clinics and hospitals to bill Medicaid, a third-party insurance, for services and that boosts budgets at the local level. (In a climate where Congress is unlike to spend more money on Indian health.) How big a number? More than a million American Indians and Alaska Natives are now insured by Medicaid. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in 2013 that Indian health facilities collected $943 million in third-party payments. “By far the largest third-party payer is Medicaid, which accounts for $683 million or 70% of total third party revenues, and 13% of total IHS program funding for FY2013,” Kaiser reported. Nearly 150,000 Alaska Natives and American Indians receive health services across the state from tribal and non-profit health organizations funded by the Indian Health Service. By law the IHS-funded clinics must seek third party billing from patients, such as Medicaid, the Veterans Administration or private, employer-based health insurance.

Medicaid is an odd program for Indian Country. Most of us understand the Indian Health Service to be the government’s fulfillment of its treaty obligations. However the IHS has never been fully funded. Medicaid, however, is an unlimited check. If a person is eligible, then the money is there. Yet states, not tribes nor the federal government, determine the rules for Medicaid. And many Republican states have been determined to fight the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, at every turn, and that means refusing to accept Medicaid expansion (the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states could turn it down).

Alaska’s decision means that the number of states rejecting Medicaid is continuing to shrink. Most recently Montana agreed to expand Medicaid in April. The states with large American Indian and Alaska Native populations that have not expanded Medicaid include Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Maine, Wyoming, and Idaho. Utah is the next state considering an expansion.

The Affordable Care Act continues to evolve — and improve. But more important, steps that states are taking to expand Medicaid are adding real dollars to the Indian health system.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.