Rural Governance Commission
Alaska Governor Tony Knowles created the Commission on Rural Government and Empowerment in February 1998, which completed its Final Report to the Governor in June 1999.
Gov. Knowles asked the commissioners to: (1) Examine the responsibilities and relationships of governance institutions in delivering services in rural Alaska. (2) Prepare recommendations to further or enhance governance in rural Alaska, emphasizing local autonomy, control and accountability for public resources. (3) Develop recommendations on ways to fulfill rural Alaskan aspirations for self-reliance, responsibility and greater control over their destinies, and cultural preservation. (4) Recommend ways to improve the delivery of government services, including public safety, justice, natural resource management, education, public health, and economic development.
In fulfilling this charge, the commissioners—representing all parts of the state—established four principles. First, tribes exist in Alaska with the authority to govern. Second, Alaska Natives maintain a special government-to-government relationship with the United States and the state commission respects this relationship. Third, all rural Alaskans must have governmental tools and resources that enable empowerment and maximize self-determination. Fourth, governments at all levels must be efficient and productive with fiscal resources, must develop and utilize local human resources, and must be responsive to local needs.
In its final report, the commission published a comprehensive set of recommendations and found “that despite challenges, locally chosen forms of self-government in rural communities are creating structures and processes that are meeting community needs in locally appropriate and effective ways.”
In completing its work with a positive yet cautionary statement (noting that many of its findings and recommendations had been previously articulated in reports and publications stretching back decades), the commission established a clear direction forward for progress on rural governance. Gov. Knowles’ term, however, ended in 2002 and his successors expressed minimal interest in the subject.
This led the original organizers and commissioners, along with other interested Alaskans, to reconvene the Alaska Rural Governance Commission in December 2013 as an independent and privately funded event to revisit and re-examine the original findings and recommendations.
During the two-day meeting, over 51 participants—including 11 members of the original commission—discussed the state of rural governance, identified seven strategic action areas in need of reform, identified five arenas of action where work needed to occur, and articulated a future vision for healthy and thriving Alaska Native communities. The commission’s new report, “Rural Governance Remains Unfinished Business in Alaska – A Call to Action,” was published in November 2014.
Also, in November 2014, independent candidate Bill Walker and running mate Byron Mallott—co-chair of the original commission and participant in the reconvened commission—won election as Alaska’s new governor and lt. governor, respectively. Throughout the four years of their administration, Gov. Walker and Lt. Gov. Mallott committed themselves to making progress on rural governance and Alaska Native issues.
Gov. Walker established an ambitious goal of improving the relationship between tribes and the state and restoring respect for Alaska’s first people within state government.
To this end, Gov. Walker, through Administrative Order No. 277, signed on Oct. 11, 2015, created the 11-member Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council (GTAC) to advise him on the issues of education, healthcare, subsistence, energy, public safety and justice, wildlife and fisheries, economic development, housing, transportation, language, and culture. Gov. Walker said GTAC came about after a three-day visit to five rural communities earlier in 2015 and his wish to continue the dialogue.
The newly appointed GTAC members held their first official meeting on May 5, 2016 to discuss issues with the governor and find opportunities for the state and tribes to work collaboratively.
Also in 2016, the Walker administration dropped the state’s appeal in a legal case involving an increase in tribal jurisdiction in Alaska through placement of tribal lands into trust. With trust status, land titles are transferred to the federal government thereby protecting lands from taxation or seizure for debt. The administration had originally been concerned about the creation of a patchwork of differing legal and regulatory authorities in the state, but the case was made moot when the U.S. Department of the Interior (under the Obama administration) dropped its legal challenge and sided with Alaska tribes.
Early in his administration, Gov. Walker directed every member of his cabinet to take racial equity training conducted by The First Alaskans Institute.
In October 2017, Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth issued a formal legal opinion recognizing the sovereignty and legal existence of Alaska Native tribes. She wrote that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, contrary to a common misconception, did not terminate tribal sovereignty in Alaska and that legal precedent and authority exists for tribes to set up governments and courts as well as make their own laws and be governed by them. The opinion was prepared in response to a request from Gov. Walker for guidance about the sovereignty of tribes and their relationship with the state.
In a related action, Gov. Walker signed the Alaska Child Welfare Compact with 18 tribes and tribal organizations in October 2017 to allow them to begin providing child welfare programs and protection services for both member and non-Native children within defined areas and to recognize the inherent sovereign authority of tribal governments in Alaska to protect children within their jurisdictions.
In 2018, Gov. Walker issued a new administrative order saying the state must deal with tribes on a government-to-government basis when working on issues that impact tribes.
Appendices from 2013 Reconvening
Thank you to our Partners!
Unlike the first Commission, which was State-sponsored, the reconvened Commission was privately funded and self-initiated. In addition to the time and funding provided by First Alaskans Institute and North Star Group, Alaska Municipal League, Bering Straits Native Corporation, Chenega Corporation, Koniag Inc., NANA Regional Corporation, Sealaska and Tanana Chiefs Conference generously helped support this project.
Arnold Brower, Jr.*
Dalee Sambo Dorough
Jim LaBelle, Sr.
Liz Medicine Crow
Nancy Cecile Barnes*
*Original Commission member/staff
** Deceased Commission member