Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds up a bill providing state recognition of the 229 federally recognized Alaska Native tribes after signing it Thursday during a ceremony at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. He also signed a bill authorizing tribes to establish compact schools under a pilot program. (Courtesy Photo / Alaska Federation of Natives)

Tribal recognition bill arrives with lessons

Pilot program allowing Alaska Native compact schools adds heft to ceremony.

A day Alaska tribes got big headlines for a huge symbolic win with long-sought state recognition also was a lesser-publicized occasion for some substantial schooling in the form of a tribal-state pilot program now on the horizon.

The signing of a bill recognizing Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes was the highlight event during a four-hour event at midday Thursday, where Gov. Mike Dunleavy briefly did his official duty between an array of dances and speeches from the roughly 200 Alaska Native attendees at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. But since the bill has no impact on tribes’ legal relations with the state, the emphasizes was on hopes for an improved working relationship.

“If it doesn’t change anything legally, what’s the point?” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat who sponsored House Bill 123, repeating a question she says she’s been asked frequently. “Alaska has had a long, hostile and tenuous relationship with its tribal governments, and yet Alaska relies on tribes and tribal governments to provide its essential services.”

While numerous recent and ongoing conversations about leveraging federal relationships with tribes and expanding state involvement have occurred, “how can you expand relationships with tribes if you’ve never taken the most fundamental step of working with them in its legal code?” she added.

Dunleavy, who’s frequently been at odds with tribes with challenges to their sovereignty during his first term, chose to highlight the harmonizing moment by repeatedly referring to protests, riots and destruction of monuments in other states due to racial and cultural tensions.

“In Alaska we add things to complete our history” rather than tearing them down, he said.

Having youths learn from elders sets an example others can follow, Dunleavy added.

“As long as we’re dedicated to working together and not divided ourselves Alaska can be shining star for the country,” he said.

The day’s “other” bill signing during the ceremony may ultimately make a much longer journey toward achieving that goal.

Allowing tribes to apply to establish compact schools is now permitted with Dunleavy’s signing of Senate Bill 34. Sponsored by Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, proponents say it will expand school choice options, give tribes greater control over education programs for tribal members, and create opportunities to incorporate Native cultures and languages into tribal school curricula.

“It’s not just for Native students, but for all students as we move through our schools,” he said.

Stevens noted one of the prominent advocates for the bill was Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and said its enactment will allow her to pursue the pilot program in the most substantive way possible.

“I know once this bill is passed and signed she will use that to get a lot of federal funds coming in to use in those schools in ways that will be creative,” he said.

Juneau already has extensive Alaska Native educational content in schools, and Kristin Bartlett, chief of staff for the Juneau School District, said she isn’t aware of any local entities that have expressed interest in establishing a compact school as permitted by the bill.

“But I would imagine there would be interest in taking advantage at some point in time,” she said.

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 20

Here’s what to expect this week.

A U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka helicopter hovers over Sitka Sound during routine hoist training. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Lt. Cmdr Wryan Webb)
Yakutat-bound charter flight missing from Juneau

Flight departed from Juneau on Saturday with three people aboard, according to U.S. Coast Guard.

President Biden at the White House on July 3. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden drops out of race, scrambling the campaign for the White House

Withdraws under pressure from fellow Democrats; endorses Vice President Kamala Harris to take on Trump.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, July 18, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Buttons on display at a campaign event Monday, July 8, 2024, in Juneau, urge supporters to vote against Ballot Measure 2, the repeal of Alaska’s current election system. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Ranked-choice repeal measure awaits signature count after Alaska judge’s ruling

Signatures must be recounted after judge disqualifies almost 3,000 names, citing state law violations.

The offices of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Juneau are seen on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska demographers predict population drop, a switch from prior forecasts

For decades, state officials have forecast major population rises, but those haven’t come to pass.

Neil Steininger, former director of the state Office of Management and Budget, testifies before the House Finance Committee at the Alaska State Capitol in January of 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Neil Steininger, former budget director for Gov. Dunleavy, seeking District 1 Juneau Assembly seat

Downtown resident unopposed so far for open seat; deadline to file for local races is Monday.

A mother bear and a cub try to get into a trash can on a downtown street on July 2, 2024. Two male bears were euthanized in a different part of downtown Juneau on Wednesday because they were acting aggressively near garbage cans, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Two black bears in downtown Juneau euthanized due to aggressive behavior around people

Exposed garbage, people insistent on approaching bears contribute to situation, official says

Most Read