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State GOP leaders fight tribal recognition 5-4-07

- Citing a new application for tribal gambling in Eklutna, Republican legislative leaders say they want the federal government to reverse course and overturn recognition of Native tribal governments in Alaska.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, and Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, say tribal recognition has had “profound policy consequences” resulting in jurisdictional conflicts in Alaska.

Their May 1 letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne asks him to delay a decision on Eklutna's bid until his department can review the legal basis of Alaska's “purported” tribes.

The letter brought a swift response from the Legislature's Bush caucus, who told Kempthorne the legal status of Alaska's tribes is long-settled.

“It has been debated, regulated, legislated and litigated over time, with the same result: that Alaska Native tribes exist in Alaska,” the caucus response said.

The gambling angle is new, but the fight over tribal status has been going on for years. A similar bid by Republican legislative leaders to undo tribes was made in December 2001. Their letter to Kempthorne's predecessor, Gale Norton, did not bring policy change.

That letter created an uproar among Alaska Natives, however, with one tribal leader accusing then-House Speaker Brian Porter and Senate President Rick Halford of “poking the beehive” for no reason.

Bush legislators this week cited their detailed response to the earlier letter. In that response, they argued that tribes' limited status in Alaska has been a social benefit in rural areas with little other government. They also argued that any change of tribal status for Alaska Natives must come from Congress, not the interior secretary.

The 2007 version of the letter adds a few unique political twists. Green, whose majority coalition includes three Bush Democrats, signed as District G senator rather than as Senate president. And Harris, whose Valdez district includes a swath of Interior Alaska, is listed as a member of the Bush Caucus on the response letter to Kempthorne.

Gov. Sarah Palin does not want to see gambling expanded in Alaska and has asked the Department of Law to oppose Eklutna's bid, a spokeswoman said Thursday. But the governor's office offered no comment on the larger question of tribes in Alaska.

The Eklutna tribal government applied in April for a federal gaming permit to allow Class II gambling such as bingo or pull tabs. Full-scale casino gambling would not be possible on tribal lands in Alaska as long as it is banned by state law.

Eklutna's bid will require the National Indian Gaming Commission to decide if a Native allotment in Eklutna meets the definition of “Indian land” where gambling can take place. Only a few isolated tracts in Southeast, none of them allotments, have been granted that status in Alaska. A tribe must be able to show it exerts government power over the land.

The Green-Harris letter asks Kempthorne to decide, among other things, whether any Indian land exists in Alaska and whether Alaska Native organizations are “tribes” when it comes to gambling. Without tribes, the tribal gambling question would go away.

Everyone agrees that Alaska tribes evolved historically under different rules from reservation-bound tribes in the Lower 48. Alaska tribes emerged from limbo in 1993 when an Interior Department decree recognized 227 village-based tribes in Alaska.

The first big question to follow involved the powers of those tribes. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they had no governmental powers over large tracts of “Indian country.” Then-Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, dropped an appeal of the 1993 recognition and signed an administrative order acknowledging the tribes' limited self-governing powers.

Since then, the state has worked with village tribes and tribal courts in a few areas such as child adoption. The Alaska Supreme Court has endorsed that work.

Tribes have also proven to be a major conduit for federal funds, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to Alaska every year through programs aimed at Native Americans. The Green-Harris letter makes a point of not objecting to that role for tribes here.

But the era of state-tribal cooperation remained controversial for some time. Legal challenges periodically highlighted questions about the reach of tribal authority here. Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, scaled back the cooperation on child welfare of his predecessor.

Lawyer Don Mitchell, author of a two-book history of Alaska Native legal status, has continued to argue that Congress never intended to recognize tribes as distinct governments in Alaska. Mitchell remains an adviser to Republican leaders in the Legislature under a long-term legal contract with the state's Legislative Council.

In memos to Legislative Council leaders earlier this year, Mitchell warned that Congress was quietly enhancing the legal status of Alaska tribes by singling them out for service in laws covering violence against women, child sexual abuse and methamphetamine enforcement.

Lloyd Miller, a lawyer for Native groups, responded angrily to those memos, calling the federal programs important efforts to deal with problems in villages that have little other governmental support. Miller called this week's Green-Harris letter part of a long-term campaign by Mitchell to destroy village-based tribes.