Alaskans will likely get the chance to vote to recognize the state’s 229 already federally recognized tribes in the November election following the Wednesday submission of signatures for a ballot initiative to the Division of Elections.
The group behind the effort, Alaskans for Better Government, announced they were submitting more than 56,230 signatures to the Division of Elections to have the question put to Alaska voters on the 2022 ballot.
“This puts us in a state of trusting that Alaskans are going to stand up for Indigenous people,” said ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake of the large number of signatures gathered. “We’re confident the voters of Alaska recognize the first peoples that are here.”
Blake is one of the campaign’s sponsors and in a meeting with reporters Wednesday said she was hopeful voters would approve the measure.
“The signatures themselves give us a good indication of the support in general,” Blake said. “I feel we have a strong movement and momentum.”
The language of the initiative is almost identical to that of House Bill 123, Blake said, which passed the Alaska House of Representatives in May and will come before the Senate in the upcoming legislative session. But HB 123 isn’t the first bill to try to have the state recognize Alaska’s tribal governments. A similar bill passed the House in 2020, but legislative bills are only valid for the two years of a Legislature and must be resubmitted following an election year.
Based on conversations with lawmakers, HB 123 doesn’t seem to be a priority for the Senate this year, Blake said. But whether it’s through legislative action or a vote of the people was largely irrelevant, she said, as having the state government formally recognize the sovereignty of tribal governments was necessary and long overdue.
The initiative has considerable support from Alaska Native organizations throughout the state, according to Blake, and the positive turnout for the ballot initiative showed considerable public support for the proposal. Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson is Alaskans for Better Government’s chairperson.
The state already works with tribal governments in several areas including tribal compacting for education, public safety and public health, Blake said, and some state departments already recognize tribes’ sovereignty in those areas. But the state has often pushed back against tribal sovereignty in litigation which campaigners said wastes time and money in legal disputes that have almost always ended in favor of tribal governments.
“The unique relationship that tribes have is vested in federal jurisdiction,” said state Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, who sponsored HB 123. “The state of Alaska has sued Alaska tribes to challenge their role (as sovereign governments), because of that we have a history of judicial findings.”
Both the initiative and HB 123 have significant bipartisan support, Zulkosky said, noting the bill had Democratic, independent and Republican co-sponsors and passed in the House with 35 out of 40 votes. The initiative has been endorsed by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Sealaska Corporation and CCTHITA. Blake said no groups have yet formed to formally oppose the initiative.
But this year was likely to be a contentious election, Blake said, with the governor up for reelection and new voting districts changing the political landscape. One of the challenges facing the initiative is combating misinformation about what tribal sovereignty means, Blake said.
“There’s a backward fear that once tribes take over there’s only going to be tribal members that are working in those facilities,” Blake said. “We have a statewide tribal health care system that has a clinic in almost every community, they don’t just see tribal citizens.”
Campaigners pointed to the state’s relationship with tribal health organizations as examples of where the two governments have worked together for years for the mutual benefit of the state as a whole. In addition to being a lawmaker, Zulkosky works for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
“(The state) took a lot of credit for the progress of COVID-19 response,” Zulkosky said, noting tribal governments had spent their own federal dollars on testing and vaccines. “The teams on the ground that were doing that work were Alaska’s tribal health system.”
Zulkosky and other supporters of the initiative have said the initiative wouldn’t significantly change the relationship between tribal governments and the state, but simply codify the unique relationship between the two entities. In the past, the state has pushed back against tribal sovereignty on the grounds doing so would be giving unconstitutional preference to a racial group. But that was a misinterpretation of the law, Blake said, as tribal governments are sovereign political entities.
“The political relationship we have and the racial relationship we have are completely different,” Blake said. When we’re talking about tribal rights, we’re talking about a political relationship.”
Many disputes over land use are already overseen by federal entities, Zulkosky said, and noted that the Alaska Oil and Gas Association stated in a letter that the organization has no opposition to the current text of HB 123.
“Nothing in this legislation appears to relinquish the State of Alaska’s authority over particular lands, peoples, or activities, create any additional burdens on the State or private industry, or impact the rights of Alaska Natives as set forth in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act or under other applicable law,” AOGA President and CEO Kara Moriarty said in a March 26, letter to Zulkosky’s office.
The initiative gathered more than 56,000 signatures since October when the campaign began, the group said in a news release, well above the 36,140 needed to qualify for the ballot. Alaskans for Better Government also announced the creation of a steering committee of Alaska Native leaders to help the campaign move forward.
Signatures must be verified and approved by the Division of Elections, according to the division’s website, and the lieutenant governor must notify campaigners within 60 days whether the petition was properly or improperly filed.
The bipartisan support for the past House bills and the significant turnout for the ballot initiative have the campaign’s sponsors confident voters will approve the measure.
“Our signature requirement was the highest a ballot initiative has faced in 20 years. The fact that we finished early with backing from every community underscores that Alaskans understand how commonsense this is,” Peterson said in a statement. “This initiative will open doors to more federal funding, better policy, and a more respectful partnership between the state and our Tribes to address issues that impact all Alaskans.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.