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Lieutenant governor certifies Alaska tribal recognition ballot measure for signature gathering

Voting booths for the 2020 general election.
Voting booths for the 2020 general election.(Alex Bengel/KTVF)
Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 4:01 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer certified a ballot measure on Friday that would see the state formally recognize Alaska tribes.

Backers of the initiative are turning their attention to signature gathering to get it on the ballot for next November’s general election. To appear on the ballot, they will try to collect 36,140 signatures from registered voters before the start of the regular legislative session in January.

The initiative is being supported by three Alaska Native leaders. Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida, said it would be a positive step in developing relationships between sovereign tribes and the state when working in areas like education, public safety and health care.

“It’s fundamentally impossible to really build a successful relationship under the current circumstance,” he said.

There are 229 federally recognized tribes across Alaska. The federal government has recognized their sovereignty since 1994 and the Alaska Supreme Court has consistently recognized that status since 1999.

Recognition at a state level would provide an “affirmation” of what tribes are doing, said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel.

She introduced a bill in 2020 with identical language to the initiative. It passed the House of Representatives in May on a 35-4 vote and is now before the Senate for the next regular legislative session. If the bill passes, the initiative would not move ahead.

Zulkosky cited the push from tribes and Alaska Native corporations to raise COVID-19 vaccination rates as an example of a successful partnership between tribes and the state. She also highlighted what the bill wouldn’t do.

“There’s nothing in this legislation that creates Indian land, there’s nothing in this legislation that touches on legal jurisdiction issues,” she said. “Really, it’s an effort as a legislative body, saying that, ‘We recognize the importance and the value that tribes bring to Alaska.’”

The Legislature’s attorneys wrote that the bill would not have “any legal impact on the relationship between the state and tribes.”

Attorney General Treg Taylor released a review of the initiative on Oct. 8, saying it was “unlikely” to legally change that relationship. He said the initiative is constitutional and said there is language explicitly stating that it would not “create a trust relationship between the state and federally recognized tribes.”

“Whether the proposed bill would have other positive or negative effects, as a practical matter, is beyond the scope of this review,” he wrote.

Barbara ‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak Blake, policy director at First Alaskans Institute, explained there is currently no obligation for the state to work with tribes.

“It’s just a level of relationship building, and it’s just a first step in that relationship building,” Blake said about the initiative.

Alaskans for Better Government is the name of the campaign now turning its attention to signature gathering to get the initiative on the ballot. Peterson said that name was significant, noting that 11 states recognize tribes, some in strong formal partnerships.

He added that there may already be compacts between the states and tribes on child welfare and education, but recognition would make a difference in bettering relationships between federal, state, municipal and tribal governments.

“I think that if we’re going to build prosperous communities, we need to be all hands on deck in working together for that prosperity,” Peterson said.

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