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Regional History
Governing Alaska
Tribal Governments

Another form of local government in Alaska is the tribal government, which exists in various forms throughout rural areas of the state. The tribal governments derive their authority from laws and legal precedents that go back to the earliest days of the United States.

The underlying notion was that Natives had governed themselves before the United States came into existence and that they retained unique rights of self-government after the nation was established.

The federal government recognizes 229 tribes in Alaska. There is much uncertainty about the powers these tribes possess in Alaska, mainly because the rules are complicated and because the laws adopted by Congress and their interpretation by the courts have changed over the years.

At times in our history the federal government’s priority was to encourage that Natives be assimilated into the dominant culture, while self-determination has been a key concept in more recent times.

Reservation land owned by Native Americans is regarded under federal law as “Indian Country,” a legal term that refers to lands under the jurisdiction of tribal governments. The tribal governments can make decisions about taxes, fish and wildlife matters and generally say what is allowed and not allowed in “Indian Country.”

But there have never been many large reservations in Alaska. And with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, the only remaining reservation in the state was the Annette Island Reserve in Southeast Alaska.

Rather than create reservations, the land claims law provided that private corporations controlled by Natives would be set up to handle more than 40 million acres of Native land contained in the settlement.

Tribal advocates have argued that the Native lands in Alaska controlled by the corporations should be Indian Country, which would give the tribes a lot of power and reduce the power of the corporations and the state.

The state of Alaska has opposed this idea, arguing that the main governing authority should remain with the state. In 1998, the United States Supreme Court settled the question. It ruled unanimously in what is known as the Venetie case that Alaska Native lands, with limited exceptions, are not “Indian Country.” This decision sharply limited the powers of tribal governments in Alaska.

The ruling by the court left tribal governments without much territory over which to exercise their authority, leading to more uncertainty and confusion about their powers. The state had taken the Venetie case to the Supreme Court, arguing that a declaration of “Indian Country” in Alaska would have led to more than 200 “separate and sovereign” tribal governments with powers over such things as fish and game and taxes.

In the aftermath of the Venetie decision, the courts and government still have to sort out what powers the tribes have, as the lines of authority remain ambiguous. In 1999, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the authority of tribes in dealing with child custody cases even outside Indian Country, which means that some tribal powers are not based on whether the tribes control land.

Another issue leading to confusion is that the tribal governments often are not the only entities providing services in a village. “Some villages have a municipal government, a tribal government, a village corporation, and a regional corporation, along with other governing institutions, all exercising one degree or another of decision-making power over a typically small population and attendant resources,” said a 1999 consultants’ report, “Achieving Alaska Native Self-Governance.”

The report, written for the Alaska Federation of Natives to explore options for the future in rural areas, said that having multiple governing entities leads to power struggles among competing interests and other administrative problems.

The tribes recognized by the federal government generally fall into two types. About 70 tribal governments were formed under the federal Indian Reorganization Act, a law from the 1930s,while about 150 of the tribes have traditional councils. In many of those villages, there are also cities organized under state law.

The IRA governments in the villages perform a variety of functions regarding tribal members and in some areas have authority over non-Natives, such as controlling the adoption of Native children by non-Natives.

Most of the money for IRA governments comes the federal government through programs specifically targeted for Native Americans under federal Indian law and through grants. Some IRA governments also contract with federal agencies for specific functions, such as conducting surveys of fish and game.

There are also tribal governments based on traditional councils that “range from informal arrangements whose structure and authority derive from centuries of cultural practice to formalized structures established in written constitutions and bylaws,” said the 1999 consultants’ report by the Economics Resource Group and the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Some of the traditional governments are active, while others do little compared to municipal governments, village corporations and non-profit agencies.

The tribal sovereignty movement that gathered strength in the 1980s and beyond drew much of its momentum from people who felt that the land claims settlement did not do enough to improve the lives of people in the villages and that more local control was needed. There was also dissatisfaction with the existing municipal forms of government outlined in the state constitution. The underlying tension remains an unresolved issue for much of rural Alaska.

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