The Biden administration is promising to change the relationship between the U.S. government and tribal governments throughout the nation. But relationships between the two have a long and troubled history.
While optimistic, Alaska Native leaders say they’ve heard promises before.
According to the National Museum of the American Indian, the U.S. signed roughly 374 treaties with the Indigenous people of what is now the United States.
“Often broken, sometimes coerced, treaties still define mutual obligations between the United States and Indian Nations,” the museum’s website says.
A Jan. 26, memo from the White House is directing the heads of each agency to prepare a report within 90 days on implementation plans for a previous executive order regarding government-to-government relationships with tribes.
“History demonstrates that we best serve Native American people when Tribal governments are empowered to lead their communities, and when Federal officials speak with and listen to Tribal leaders in formulating Federal policy that affects Tribal Nations,” the memo said.
The Biden administration is well aware of frayed relations and is striving to make tribal consultations more meaningful said Bryan Newland, senior adviser to the Secretary of the Interior. Newland said as a tribal representative himself, he empathized with tribes who expressed frustration with the federal government and said he himself had been in those negotiations.
Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of the Interior is U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico. If confirmed Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo nation, would be the first Indigenous person to lead the department.
“That skepticism is well-earned over centuries with the federal government,” Newland said in an interview. “We have every intention of doing our best to make (tribal consultations) different, and to make it meaningful.”
Making it different means the department “showing its work,” Newland said. The administration met with Alaska tribes on March 12, he said, as part of that effort.
“We know that we have to make this process truly meaningful,” Newland said. “The only way we’re going to do that is by listening, truly listening, showing our work and showing how our approach is shaped by what we heard.”
The road ahead
Federal tribal consultations not feeling meaningful was something cited by Organized Village of Kake President Joel Jackson as a reason he was skeptical of U.S. government relations.
“I don’t even call it consultation, call it lip-service,” Jackson told the Empire.
Kake was one of eight Southeast tribal governments to ask federal authorities to stop working on a repeal of the Roadless Rule in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic prevented in-person consultations. During the Roadless Rule revision process, Southeast Alaska tribes repeatedly expressed their frustration at feeling ignored by federal agencies.
“Our sovereignty has been very disrespected by the federal government and the state of Alaska, and if I sound upset, it’s because I feel very passionate that we should be received as a sovereign nation,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he felt Alaska Native input on the Roadless Rule was simply ignored and that a decision had already been made at higher levels. Efforts to repeal the 2001 Roadless Rule accelerated under former President Donald Trump, whose Secretary of Agriculture put forward six possible alternatives to the rule. Despite overwhelming comment in favor of leaving the rule in place, the alternative lifting the rule in its entirety was ultimately selected.
“We spent almost a year or more sitting down meeting with the Forest Service,” he said. “There were six options on the table; in the end the Forest Service was directed by the top officials.”
Jackson’s frustration was echoed by Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, who said his experience with state and federal authorities had been at times difficult.
“The state government tends to feel our sovereignty threatens theirs,” Peterson said in an interview with the Empire. “For some reason when we talk about our traditional way of life, what they refer to as subsistence, it kind of puts us on the back burner.”
Both the Organized Village of Kake and Tlingit and Haida were among the tribes that asked federal authorities to stop work on changes to the Roadless Rule. Worked continued and the rule was repealed late last year.
The nomination of Haaland and the Biden administration’s outreach has tribal leaders cautiously optimistic about a change in the approach of the federal government. Peterson said he had been contacted by the administration’s transition team and was looking forward to the meetings.
“I’ve just learned over the years to not count my chickens before they hatch,” Peterson said.
Alaska is home to 229 federally-recognized sovereign tribes, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but state law doesn’t formally recognize those tribes.
The state government has a history of suing those tribes, said state Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, in ways that have created a tense relationship.
“Those lawsuits set up a dynamic of challenging the ability of tribes to do their work and represent the tribal members they serve,” she said in an interview. “That history of lawsuits has led to a very oppositional relationship.”
Turnover in the Legislature means there was a recurring need to educate new lawmakers on tribal governments and their histories and context, Zulkosky said. A bill that would formally recognize tribes in Alaska passed through the House of Representatives last year but the coronavirus pandemic ended the Legislature early. Legislatures work in two regular sessions in two years and any bills not passed within that time must begin the legislative process from the beginning.
Zulkosky is sponsoring a similar bill this year, but said it’s going to take more than a bill to repair the state’s relationship.
Tribal governments say their right to govern themselves isn’t actually derived from U.S. law but simply from the fact tribes have been self-governing for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, said Nicole Borromeo, executive vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Whether the state recognizes tribal governments wasn’t necessarily a focus for AFN, she said, noting the group wants to have a positive working relationship with the state.
Tribal leaders emphasized the relationship between tribal governments and state and federal authorities is not oppositional, and that the goals of tribal governments often aligned with state and federal governments.
In an email, Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said the administration values its tribal relationships and employs 18 tribal liaisons, including rural policy adviser John Moller and Southeast community relations liaison Bill Thomas. Liaisons engage with tribes on a continuous basis where tribes and state government intersect on public policy, the email said.
“The State of Alaska has recognized tribes for many years, tribal sovereignty is not something the state can grant or take away,” Turner said. “It is also important for both sides to acknowledge that relationships require, at a minimum, a commitment to working together. Our responsibility and obligations extend to all Alaskans including tribal communities.”
Working toward common good
Peterson, Borromeo and Zulkosky all pointed to tribal health organizations’ partnership with the state in response to the pandemic as sovereignty in action. Tribes — as sovereign governments — and the services they provide bring resources into the state that wouldn’t otherwise be available.
“Tribal governments bring in millions, if not billions of dollars,” Peterson said. “The Indian Health Service, that’s because of tribes. (Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium) exists because of tribal authority.”
Both entities have been instrumental in rollout of COVID-19 vaccines at state and local levels.
But the fact the state often works with tribal governments, yet doesn’t formally recognize their sovereignty has been a point of contention.
“The irony there is just so thick,” Peterson said. “I count how many times the answer for so many services is compacting with tribes, yet there’s no formal recognition of tribes’ sovereignty.”
In his State of the State address, the governor said he wanted to strengthen Alaska’s sovereignty to be a more independent state. But when it came to his own administration and tribal sovereignty, there was room for improvement, Borromeo said.
The governor is willing to learn and listen, Borromeo said, and has worked with tribal governments on compacting to provide state services. Tribal compacting is when the state and a tribal government reach an agreement for the tribe to provide services such as K-12 education, which by law should be provided by the state.
“Healthy tribes make healthy communities,” Peterson said. “As you see tribes develop more on economic sovereignty and build resources that are our own and not tethered, that makes for stronger and healthier communities all around.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.