Alaska has struggled to improve its relationship with Alaska Natives for a long time now. Since the inception of the state, admission of the difficulty Alaska Native communities face thanks to the plight of colonialism and negligence has been sparse. It is only as of recent that state officials have come to directly and explicitly acknowledge that the land we stand on itself was stolen.
In fact, to this very day, Alaska Natives still face credible threats to their sovereignty. In April, the Dunleavy administration faced criticism for failing to consult with two tribes over the construction of the Donlin Gold mine and the Palmer Project. Shutting down discourse between government and Native communities over projects that could disproportionately affect indigenous lands is not new, especially for those who have been fighting the Pebble Mine project for years.
Despite ongoing threats to territorial sovereignty, state lawmakers and administrations insist on an interstate solution. That is, they continue to suggest reforms that increase the role of local government and consultation with Native communities to rectify their injustices.
The assumption behind these efforts is that if only we had more task forces and communication efforts, surely we could solve these problems. This narrative is misguided, as it assumes the solution to a lack of sovereignty for Alaska Native peoples is more dependence on state institutions.
The reality is that the State of Alaska has demonstrated they cannot tackle the unique problems Alaska Native communities face, and are unreliable in securing promises made towards development and sovereignty. Alaska must move forward with a plan to embrace tribal sovereignty, thus giving vastly greater legal, political and territorial control of Native lands.
What exactly does “sovereignty” mean? What would it mean for Alaska Natives? Sovereignty is essentially the right of a state to self-govern. The United States itself is a sovereign nation with the right to write its own laws, command its military and control its borders.
There are many continuities between Alaska Natives and the precedence behind sovereignty. Sovereignty has been granted to entire countries on the basis on popular will, such as South Sudan. It has been fought for by groups with a historical claim to their land, such as the Kurdish people in mostly Iraq and Syria. Many countries divide their territories up into states and grant semi-autonomous status to them in the form of legal and political control, such as India or Spain.
But more importantly, sovereignty exists as a legal claim in Alaska as well. Alaska has affirmed, on multiple occasions, the legal justification for tribal sovereignty. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 established the basis for regional governance, allowing for constitutions and tribal councils to be established. However, few have adopted the power of the IRA due to inconsistencies between state law and regional statutes.
Then came the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which delegated responsibility of land claims to state-chartered corporations, such as Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Under the Act, 44 million acres of land were handed to entities meant to protect culture for future generations.
Lastly, several court decisions have firmly solidified the legal basis for tribal sovereignty. The most notable is the Alaska Supreme Court decision John v Baker of 1999, which stated that the State of Alaska was bound by federal recognition of all 229 tribes in Alaska. As a consequence, many tribal councils and communities currently have the power to determine tribal citizenship of those outside “Indian territory,” as well as the power to handle some adoptions.
On all levels, tribal sovereignty exists. However, just because sovereignty exists does not mean it has been embraced to the fullest extent.
Look at the way in which the territorial integrity of local Native communities is violated by attempts to extract natural resources in environmentally disastrous ways.
Consider that major land holdings were never distributed to Native corporations because the IRA did not recognize them as “Indian territory.”
Realize that law enforcement has failed to deal with the unique challenges rural, isolated villages face. A ProPublica report found that 70 out of 195 Alaskan communities report having no law enforcement as of 2019.
Understand that subsistence fishing and hunting rights have been attacked at the state and federal level for decades, threatening the cultural survival of many Native communities.
Sovereignty would not solve all of these problems. However, they would give communities the power to manage their interests and problems on their own, should they see fit. For instance, tribal courts with the power to sentence under local jurisdiction would assist in the law enforcement crisis. Sovereignty would also grant communities more power to fight against resource exploitation that threatens their way of life.
Alaska law and officials have made clear the distinct right of tribes to exercise sovereignty. No longer can these words be true only in principle; it is time to exercise the power of the state and grant them in practice.