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Commission: State must recognize tribes

April 22, 1999

By Charles Bingham

ANCHORAGE — Members of the Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment told Gov, Tony Knowles April 20 that Alaska is at a critical crossroads when it comes to the way the state deals with rural communities.

The 22 members of the Rural Clovernance Commission also said the state needs to have some sort of formal recognition for tribes during an informal panel discussion with Knowles, three state representatives — Rep. Carl Morgan, R-Aniak; Rep. Andrew Halcro, R- Anchorage; and Rep. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon — and several of Knowles' cabinet officials during a two-day commission meeting April 20-21 in Anchorage.

"Since 1996, there has been an incredible atrophy in state resources for rural Alaska," said commission co-chair Byron Mallott of Juneau, the director of the Alaska Permanent Fund. "The role of the state in rural Alaska would be considered veneer instead of solid construction. There are more federal opportunities for some of these communities. There is a notion the state needs to reassert itself and reestablish the role of its government institutions. We believe there is a very, very real imbalance in the role of governance."

Mallott's comments came as some commission members discussed the weakening state presence in rural communities. As the state budget has been cut, many state programs have been shifted out of the smaller rural communities and into the regional hubs, or even toward the state's three largest cities, which leaves the villages with only minimal contact with the agencies running the state programs.

Commission members also discussed the impacts of Senate Bill 36 — last year's school funding bill that shifted money from rural districts to urban programs — and this year's proposed elimination or reduction in state revenue sharing and municipal assistance funding. There are concerns the continued budget cuts in rural Alaska will tempt more villages to dissolve their state-recognized municipal entities in favor of their local tribal governments.

After the meeting, Mallott and commission co-chair Robert Keith of Elim and Kawerak Ltd. sent a letter to Knowles asking him to hold off on his recent proposal to consolidate the functions of the Department of Community and Regional Affairs into other state agencies until after the commission delivers its final report to Knowles; most likely in June. The Alaska Federation of Natives sent a similar, but separate, letter about the DCRA consolidation plan, also asking for a delay until after the commission releases its report. Keith said many communities in rural Alaska feel DCRA is the only state agency they can go to where they know the workers care about rural interests.

As the role of the State has declined in rural Alaska, local communities and tribal groups have had to take over programs such as child welfare. Some tribal entities have been able to work with the state, but others have had difficulty and that was why commission members felt the state needed to make some type of formal recognition of tribes. Keith said tribes have been able to "redesign the box" as they've developed working agreements with federal agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs," the Indian Health Service, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Keith said he felt those would serve as good models for state agreements.

Commission member Rosemarie Maher of Fort Yukon and Doyon Ltd., who also serves as one of the co-chairs of the Alaska Federation of Natives, told Knowles that former Gov. Steve Cowper issued an executive order recognizing tribes, but when Wally Hickel became governor in 1990 one of his first acts was to tear up the order. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Interior formally recognized 225 tribes — now 226 — but the state hasn't made any formal recognition since the Cowper order.

After the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Venetie case that Indian Country doesn't exist in Alaska, Knowles created the commission to examine ways the state could better work with rural Alaska to provide programs in the post-Vettetie era. Knowles told the commission members, he recognizes tribes exist in Alaska because of federal law, but admitted the state has fought tribes on some issues. He thought one of the biggest jobs of the commission was creating a method for the state to formally recognize tribes.

"You say the state recognizes tribes, but there has been no executive order," Maher told Knowles. "It seems like it yo-yos with each administration. We're trying to get something that's consistent because it affects how villages get programs funded."


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