Alaska Tribal Recognition Ballot Initiative

Alaskans for Better Government is sponsoring an initiative that will appear on either the 2022 primary or general election ballot. If approved by Alaska’s voters, it will require the State of Alaska to officially recognize the existence of the 229 federally recognized tribes within the state. 

The initiative copies the language in a bill introduced by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel) on March 3, 2021. Rep. Zulkosky’s House Bill No. 123 passed the Alaska House of Representatives by a 35-4 vote on May 19, 2021, the last day of the regular legislative session. Though the Alaska State Senate did not have time to act on the bill, advocates for tribal recognition decided to start a petition drive in the interim to place the issue on the 2022 ballot. 

To accomplish this, they met the requirements of Alaska’s two-step initiative process. First, they submitted a ballot measure application (with 148 qualified sponsors) to the Division of Elections in August 2021. After legal review, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer certified the initiative on Oct. 8, 2021, clearing the way for the organizers to start gathering signatures to qualify the initiative for the 2022 election ballot.

The organizers turned in their petitions on Jan. 12, 2022 containing 56,200 signatures of Alaska registered voters. By exceeding the required 36,140 signatures by such a large margin, the organizers have guaranteed that the Division of Elections’ review and verification—to be completed within 60 days—will have a favorable outcome.

The ballot measure—the Alaska Tribal Recognition Act—contains language saying that the “state recognizes all tribes in the state that are federally recognized” and that nothing in the act “diminishes the United States government’s trust responsibility or other obligations to federally recognized tribes in the state or creates a concurrent trust relationship between the state and federally recognized tribes.” 

Other sections of the initiative include Findings and Intent, the correction of a federal law citation defining “federally recognized tribe,” technical changes to accommodate the new section of state law, and a severability clause.

In a formal analysis dated Oct. 4, 2021, Attorney General Treg Taylor found the initiative complied with the state’s ballot measure statutory requirements and then noted that while “federal recognition is a question of federal law, no authority prohibits a state from also recognizing tribes.” He added that such action “is unlikely to change the legal status of tribes in relation to the State.” Accordingly, the attorney general concluded that the proposed initiative met “the constitutional and statutory requirements for certification.”

Heading up pro-initiative Alaskans for Better Government are ‘Waahlaal Gidaak Barbara Blake (Haida/Tlingit/Ahtna), Chalyee Eesh Richard Peterson (Tlingit/Haida/Unangan), and La quen naay Liz Medicine Crow (Haida/Tlingit).

In interviews with the news media and in published statements, the organizers and other supporters have cited the following reasons why the initiative should be passed. The stated benefits include:

  • Create a long overdue government-to-government relationship between the State of Alaska and Alaska Native Tribes, establishing a meaningful declaration of partnership and officially making Alaska’s tribes a part of the fabric of governance in the state.
  • Encourage progress in state-tribal relations by having the state collaborate with tribes and work alongside tribes as equal partners.
  • Formalize in state statute the peer relationship between tribes and other government entities thereby creating a more efficient, effective and meaningful governance model as well as allowing the implementation of measures that benefit tribal members at the local level without substantially altering state laws.
  • Allow a coordinated government collaboration and a stronger relationship between the state government and tribes that will benefit Alaska’s communities.
  • Give state departments entities they can work with in communities that don’t have formal municipal governments.
  • Allow the state and tribes to amplify, leverage and combine federal and state funding for beneficial programs, projects and infrastructure, thereby streamlining services and stretching limited available dollars.
  • Give tribal entities and the state government more tools for dealing with complex major issues such as child welfare, public safety and transportation.
  • Resolve and mend a long and troubled history between the state and tribes which has fluctuated with changes in administration, state policies and legal opinions, leading to contention, ambiguity and inconsistency in the state’s treatment of tribes.
  • Alleviate and diminish the perceived need for expensive litigation in which the courts are asked frequently to settle and rule on jurisdictional issues and other disagreements between the state government and tribes.
  • Tap into 10,000 plus years of Indigenous knowledge to enhance the lives of all Alaskans.

One point stressed in interviews is that the initiative would not give tribes any new powers and would not change directly the existing legal relationship between tribes and the state government because the tribes already are inherently sovereign. Instead, the initiative aims to have the state acknowledge that sovereignty. 

More information can be found at the Alaskans for Better Government website.    

According to the website, the groups that have officially endorsed the initiative to date are: Alaska Federation of Natives, Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Sealaska Corporation, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Koniag Corporation, Skagway Traditional Council, Organized Village of Kake, Copper River Native Association, Old Harbor Native Corporation, Tangirnaq Native Village/Woody Island Tribal Council, Alaska March On/Women’s March Movement, Alaska Black Caucus, and Alaska Municipal League.

Legislative Update on Alaska Tribal Recognition – May 6, 2022

Two bills that impact official relations between the State of Alaska and Alaska’s sovereign Native tribes remain pending in committee as the Alaska Legislature nears its required May 18 adjournment date.

HB 123, “An Act providing for state recognition of federally recognized tribes,” is in the Senate State Affairs Committee with consideration of the bill next scheduled for May 12. The committee had amended the bill on May 5 to address concerns about how it was structured.

If the bill moves out of committee on May 12, it’s next stops will be a State Senate floor vote, if and when scheduled by the Senate Rules Committee, and then back to the House of Representatives for concurrence with the Senate amendments. Earlier this year, the bill picked up 12 state senators as cross-sponsors.

If HB 123 should be held up in the process and expire upon adjournment, the supporters of state-tribal recognition have a certified and approved ballot initiative ready to be voted on in the November general election.

SB 34, “An Act relating to a demonstration state-tribal education compact…,” is in the House Education Committee, the last referral before the House floor. It previously moved out of the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs with four “do pass” recommendations on April 27.

If enacted into law, the bill would mandate negotiations for the establishment of a demonstration project for not more than five tribally administered schools for a period of five years in Alaska in cooperation with the state Board of Education and the Department of Education. SB 34 passed the State Senate 13-1 on April 4.

In the News

Associated Press article about required signatures being submitted – January 14, 2022

Alaska Public Media story about the initiative getting the required signatures – January 5, 2022

National Native News segment discussing the initiative – December 27, 2021

Overview of the initiative on Ballotpedia

Alaska Public Media story on the initiative’s certification – October 11, 2021

ADN story on certification – October 11, 2021

Alaska’s News Source story on certification – October 12, 2021

ADN story on initiative – August 13, 2021

KYUK story on introduction of the bill by Rep. Zulkosky – April 30, 2021