This map from the U.S. Cencsus Bureau highlighting Alaska’s indigenous populations. A ballot initiative to have the State of Alaska formally recognize the state’s already federally recognized tribes took a step forward Monday, when it was certified by the Division of Elections. (Courtesy image/ Wikicommons)

This map from the U.S. Cencsus Bureau highlighting Alaska’s indigenous populations. A ballot initiative to have the State of Alaska formally recognize the state’s already federally recognized tribes took a step forward Monday, when it was certified by the Division of Elections. (Courtesy image/ Wikicommons)

Tribal recognition initiative moves ahead

Signature gathering can begin for proposed ballot initiative

Campaigners behind an effort to have the state of Alaska formally recognize the state’s 229 already federally recognized tribal governments announced on Indigenous Peoples Day they can begin collecting signatures following certification from the Division of Elections.

“Across Indian Country, we’re seeing tribes develop infrastructure and they’re forces to be reckoned with economically,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, who’s chairing the organization behind the initiative, Alaskans for Better Government, which hopes to have the initiative on the 2022 ballot.

Tribal governments bring in vast amounts of money to communities, Peterson said, and in many communities in Alaska they’re the main form of government. But the current relationship between the state and tribal governments has been contentious, Peterson said, and the initiative was a way to urge the state to work better with tribes.

Peterson is president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska but said in an interview with the Empire Monday he was acting as chair of Alaskans for Better Government, an advocacy group created specifically for the initiative. Peterson is co-sponsoring the group along with ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake and La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, according to a news release.

Blake, who is currently leading a race for a City and Borough of Juneau Assembly seat, speaking to the Empire alongside Peterson, said Alaska’s Indigenous people have been governing themselves since before the arrival of Europeans, and the state’s 229 tribes are already recognized by the federal government.

[Shortages and shipping snarls complicate local projects]

“By not recognizing our inherent sovereignty, they’re ignoring the fact we are a people that had communities which had sophisticated government structures,” Blake said. “It’s erasing us and forgetting that we exist.”

The initiative is almost identical to a bill that passed the Alaska House of Representatives in May, sponsored by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, which itself was similar to a bill from former Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, in 2020 that also passed the House. Zulkosky’s bill is still in the Senate and could be passed in the next regular session.

That bill doesn’t have any language that would formally compel the state to improve its relationship with the tribes, but that wasn’t the point, Zulkosky told the Empire Monday in a phone interview. Tribes play a unique role in Alaska, Zulkosky said, one that has held up legally in court. But Zulkosky said the real goal of the legislation was to create a policy statement affirming the role that tribes play in the state and a commitment to strengthening the relationship between tribal and state government.

Tribal health groups have been working with the state since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zulkosky said, and tribal groups continue to offer testing and vaccination services in many parts of Alaska.

“The purpose is to resolve and look to mend long-held political divisions and to acknowledge (tribes) are solid partners in the same endeavor,” Zulkosky said.

Peterson similarly acknowledged having Alaska formally recognize tribes wouldn’t force the state government to improve its relationship but said he hopes if voters approve the measure it would signal state leaders to change their approach. The relationship had improved in some areas like tribal compacting for schools and child welfare, Peterson said, but improvements have been slow and incremental.

Zulkosky too, said the relationship with tribal governments has improved recently.

“I think what we’ve seen across the country is a nationwide dialogue on racial reconciliation and working to bring communities together,” Zulkosky said. “It’s clear this is a priority for the Alaska Native community.”

With the certification on Oct. 9, the signature-gathering can now begin, Peterson said. According to the release, the campaign has until Jan. 18, 2022, to submit 36,140 signatures from qualified voters for verification and placement on the November general election ballot. Peterson said the group set up a website where Alaskans can volunteer.

Peterson said the state’s relationship with tribes has improved in recent years, but there were still difficulties. The initiative, he said, was an effort to create a better relationship with the state government.

“If they truly respected and recognized the tribes we would do a much better job serving our citizens,” Peterson said. “It’s hard to ignore what tribes can do, they can do even more when they have good relationships.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

More in News

This screen capture from surveillance footage released by the Anchorage Police Department shows a masked man vandalizing the Alaska Jewish Museum in Anchorage in May. (Courtesy photo / APD)
Museums statewide condemn antisemitic vandalism

Two incidents, one in May, one in September, have marred the museum this year.

Three speech language pathologists with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District were recognized for excellence during the Alaska Speech-Language-Hearing Association last month. (Kenai Peninsula Borough School District)
Peninsula speech language therapists awarded for excellence

“I was very honored to be recognized by my peers and colleagues,” Evans said in an interview with the Clarion.

(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file)
Dial 10 for local calls

People placing calls will need to dial all 10 digits in order for the call to go through.

(Image courtesy CDC)
Soldotna man among newly reported COVID deaths

The state also announced 830 positive COVID cases Wednesday.

A spruce tree showing heavy damage from spruce bark beetles stands on Saturday, April 28, 2018 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ben Boetttger/Peninsula Clarion file)
Prescribed burning scheduled for Moose Pass, Cooper Landing

The burning is intended to mitigate the spread of spruce bark beetles.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski attends a joint Soldotna and Kenai Chamber of Commerce Luncheon on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Peninsula projects included in Murkowski appropriations requests

The funding requests run the gamut from funding for the Alaska SeaLife Center to expanding projects at the Central Peninsula Landfill.

Spruce trees are photographed in Seldovia, Alaska, on Sept. 26, 2021. (Clarion file)
Arbor Day grant application period opens

The program provides chosen applicants with up to $400 to buy and ship trees to their schools.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Ark., leave the chamber after a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, early Wednesday, May 10, 2017. A magistrate ruled Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, that there is probable cause for a case to continue against a man accused of threatening to kill Alaska’s two U.S. senators in profanity-filled voicemails left on their office phones. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Grand jury will get case of man threatening to kill senators

He is accused of making threats against U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. (CDC)
Virus death toll soars

The state reported 66 more COVID deaths Tuesday, some recent and some as far back as April.

Most Read