There’s more to celebrate than just meeting in-person for first time in four years, as achievements related to sovereignty and inclusiveness were highlighted by leaders during Wednesday’s opening of the 88th annual Tribal Assembly of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
“It is so wonderful to be with you, to see you,” said Tlingit and Haida President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson at the beginning of his State of the Tribe speech during the first morning of the three-day gathering. “I’ve got COVID three times and four vaccinations, and I’m going to hug — but I will respect you if you don’t want to hug.”
A total of 108 delegates from Alaska and elsewhere — 95 in person and 13 virtually — are participating in the assembly at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall in downtown Juneau, with this year’s theme being “Sovereignty: In Land We Trust.” The sessions are being webcast live, and the agenda through Friday includes official matters such as adopting a budget and electing council members, as well as numerous honorary presentations and ceremonies.
Peterson, highlighting economic and social progress the tribe is making in local communities, said the baristas in the cafe serving delegates are making at least the tribe’s minimum wage of $15 — and getting other benefits such as health insurance and retirement investments.
Tribal leaders also noted during the morning efforts are being made in literally every community in Southeast Alaska, as well as many others in Alaska and outside the state, and on behalf of all members regardless of issues subject to current controversies such as cultural and LGBTQ+ discrimination.
“This is the time to come together and unify to make sure our citizens are able to live in our traditional ways with the dignity and respect we deserve,” said Rhonda Butler, president of the Juneau Tlingit & Haida Community Council. She said the assembly offers “an opportunity of elected officials to come together in a common goal (and) my prayer to each of you is during this Tribal Assembly that we come together in a united message.”
Accomplishments involving state, federal and international governments were detailed by Peterson during his speech, while emphasizing many battles remain that need full and tough determination from tribal members.
A major victory during the past year, for instance, is a landmark federal “land into trust” agreement that essentially gives a small Juneau land parcel the status of “Indian Country.” But Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who during his reelection campaign last year staged a high-profile signing of a mostly symbolic state recognition of 229 federally recognized Alaska Native tribes, is suing to stop the federal agreement that he calls “an abuse of discretion.”
The parcel is less than 800 square feet near the corner of Capitol Avenue and Village Street, but Peterson said precedent is involved since applications for other local land are pending. He said “we have to work with Gov. Dunleavy, we want to work with Dunleavy,” but the first in-person meeting with tribal leaders — following his reelection win — made it clear there are differing perceptions about their relationship.
“I would say there’s things we’re working incredibly well on, but it’s really hard when the state of Alaska files a lawsuit against our land-into-trust,” Peterson said. “So when they say we agree on 95% and probably disagree on 5% we might disagree on what 5% looks like.
“When we have a parcel of land that I could probably fit four or five cars on, and that’s what they’re arguing about, they need to stop wasting our state’s resources. They need to stop suing their own people and we are their people.”
At the federal level, beyond the “land into trust” pact, “this has been kind of banner year or two” despite areas of agreement and disagreement with the Biden administration, Peterson said. He said he’s received three invitations to the White House, including during a tribal nation summit during the past year where leaders of eight of the 570 participating tribes were invited.
“It’s not about the politics, but it’s about representation, it’s about showing up,” he said.
Peterson said tribal leaders also are generally working well with Alaska’s congressional delegation, including submitting their first-ever list of earmark funding requests to U.S. Lisa Murkowski during the past year. But he noted Tlingit and Haida now has more than 35,000 tribal citizens, including large numbers in areas of the Pacific Northwest where more attention from politicians is needed.
“If we were a federally recognized tribe of Washington we’d be one of their bigger ones,” he said. “They need to recognize that and recognize they have an obligation to Alaska because of who they represent.”
Better working relationships with neighboring Canadian officials on issues such as transboundary mining — especially cleanup of the toxic and long-abandoned Tulsequah Chief Mine — is also still needed, Peterson said. He said two ministry officials who visited last month “tried to placate us,” but also left a poor impression by misrepresenting their efforts when talking to participants at a mining industry conference.
“They declared they were working with the tribes and First Nations,” he said, “We’d never met them before.”
Peterson, acknowledging the comment might catch some delegates by surprise, said it’s important to let others know the tribe won’t put up with such approaches.
“Sometimes you do have to to let them know when they kick you in the shin you’re going to punch them in the throat,” he said.
He also offered a few harsh truth words about the tribe’s community-level efforts, saying the words of some people declaring they want to help don’t always match their actions.
“I’m going to be really critical here,” he said. “I don’t believe people who make pledges and don’t show up.”
The tribe has doubled its workforce during the past three years and now employees more than 500 people, Peterson said. As with offering higher wages and benefits to even entry-level workers than other governing entities, he said the goal of tribal leaders is to offer services that goes beyond giving people a form to fill out.
“What you should hear from our navigators is ‘here’s an application, can I fill this out for you?’” he said. “That’s what I want to hear.”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org