Alaska’s new House Tribal Affairs Committee aims to advance state relationships

The Alaska state Capitol building in Juneau, Alaska, on April 2, 2012. The Alaska House has a new special committee to focus on Indigenous affairs. (Becky Bohrer/AP Photo)
The Alaska House has a new special committee to focus on tribal affairs. The committee will aim to advance relationships with Indigenous tribes. Lawmakers spent the first few meetings getting an overview of how tribes are governed and reach compacts with the state.

The committee has been formed in part because tribes — and tribal organizations like hospitals — could provide more services that the state funds. And since the state’s relationship with tribes cuts across many different state departments, lawmakers decided to have one committee that would deal with the full range of tribal affairs.

Marie Olson is a Tlingit elder of the Áakʼw Ḵwáan people. She welcomed the first meeting of the Alaska House Tribal Affairs Committee this month on March 7.

“I thank you very much because I recognize the history of what is occurring now,” Olson said, adding the Tlingit word for thank you: “gunalchéesh.”

Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said tribes are providing services that incorporate traditional ways of thinking. And she said that’s improving outcomes in area like health care.

“Our state is home to nearly half of all federally recognized tribes in the country,” Zulkosky said. “Seeking to further our relationship with Alaska tribes helped to bridge both historical and political divisions, while also capitalizing on limited fiscal resources.”

A broad perspective

The committee’s first meeting provided context. Andrea Akall’eq Sanders of the First Alaskans Institute gave a presentation on Alaska Native history and current issues. She said her organization has a broad perspective.

“Our vision is progress for the next 10,000 years,” Sanders said.

Sanders said Alaska Native people have a perspective that the entire state can benefit from.

“We have intact knowledge of our environment — what’s happening around us, our relationship with other species, and the changes that are happening,” she said. “Our people have intact knowledge about how these things have impacted us previously and ideas on how to move forward.”

Sanders emphasized that the federal and state relationship with Alaska Native tribes means that Alaska Natives have a political status, and that services like the Indian Health Service are based on that political status, and not race. But she said non-Natives can misunderstand that.

“Sometimes they get angry about, why do Alaska Native people get free health care,” she said. “It’s not because of our racial status. It’s because, when this country was founded, it was all Indian country. And so, the United States in recognition of what we gave up as tribes made a commitment.”

She added that improved partnerships between the state and tribes can benefit the state’s future.

“Establishing a committee on tribal affairs is an opening of the door to a respectful relationship,” Sanders said.

‘Awakening from a long night’

One major area of work is health care. Former Lt. Gov. Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson said tribal organizations have provided care in a way that improved the health of Alaska Native people — in part by providing health care where people live. This is based on compacts the state has formed with tribes. She said compacts can be used to provide services in other areas.

“We have those same opportunities to make those same strides through state compacts with tribes,” Davidson said. “But they have to be adequately funded in order for them to be successful. We need to make sure that we set people up for success and we don’t just merely transfer the responsibility without any of the resources.”

Anchorage Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp said he’s looking forward to the committee’s work.

“It’s really clear that Alaska is awakening from a long night,” Kopp said. “A night of a lot of sickness and sorrow, because of individual groups that did not understand each other, did not grow together, and a lack of community. But I look forward to the dawn of a new day of partnering, working together.”

The committee will hold meetings on rural public safety and child welfare in the coming days.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Northwestern Canada: Ottawa, Yukon gov’t, First Nations lay groundwork for changes to child care, CBC News

Norway: Inuit, Sami leading the way in Indigenous self-determination, study says, CBC News

Sweden: Calls for more Indigenous protection in Sweden on Sami national day, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska and its tribes sign child services agreement, Alaska Public Media

Andrew Kitchenman, Alaska Public Media & KTOO - Juneau

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