What does this mean?

This story in the Anchorage Daily News  stirred up a lot of comments. The subject  touches all of us in Alaska at some level or other but we don’t talk  about it much, even when we’re hollering about it…

‘A nation-to-nation relationship’

Posted by thevillage
November 25, 2009 – 9:44 am

A little follow-up today from the feds on President Obama’s Nov. 5 meeting with tribal leaders

The Interior Department says it’s working on a department-wide “tribal consultation” policy, which is something Obama called for at the meeting. All federal departments and agencies are to draw up plans for getting more input from tribes.

The   link in this article   leads to  a related story which  generated a comment food fight, as so many things do lately. I don’t care about  the food fight . It is  the comments attached to this article which concern me.

I know some of those voices… they belong to  sensible , outspoken Alaskans- who care very much where we are headed and what we are doing but who don’t know or have forgotten some things about  this subject.

I’m here to share the little bit I know so maybe we can all pick up and start again from a different angle… 🙂

Tribal sovereignty including  nation-to-nation dealings is not a new idea or construct. There is a body of law going back to the beginnings  of America flowing directly from  the Constitution of the United States surrounding this idea and the set of issues it contains.

From Wikipedia:

Tribal sovereignty in the United States refers to the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the United States of America. The US federal government recognizes tribal nations as “domestic dependent nations” and has established a number of laws attempting to clarify the relationship between the United States federal and state governments and the tribal nations. The Constitution and later federal laws grant to tribal nations more sovereignty than is granted to states or other local jurisdictions, yet do not grant full sovereignty equivalent to foreign nations, hence the term “domestic dependent nations”.

The American Indian Policy center has a primer on tribal sovereignty with much information on the subject including Treaties and Trust Responsibility.

Treaties formalize a nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and the tribes.

Trust Responsibility
In treaties, Indians reliquished certain rights in exchange for promises from the federal government. Trust responsibility is the government’s obligation to honor the trust inherent to these promises and to represent the best interests of the tribes and their members.

Philip J. Prygoski, a professor of law at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, where he teaches constitutional law and federal Indian law, outlined the Supreme Court’s changing stance on Tribal Sovereignty from Justices Marshall to Marshall for the American Bar Association.

From the era of Chief Justice John Marshall through the time of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court has struggled to define the doctrine of American Indian tribal sovereignty. Tribal sovereignty is not simply an abstract legal concept; it is part of the military, social, and economic development of our country. The following is a look at how the decisions of the Court for the past 170 years have defined, defended, and ultimately diminished that sovereignty.

What IS new is that our current federal administration has vowed to  honor the idea of parity, inherent in the term nation-to-nation, in it’s dealings with tribes. Parity at the table… equal standing, or something akin to it,  for tribes in their dealings with the federal government…

This has created  much hope within tribes across America . This appears to be the next step forward in a long series of  at- least- two-steps-back-for-every-step-forward attempts to sort out self determination for tribal groups.

Alaska , however, has some unique issues regarding tribes which make the whole thing very untidy.

-Heads up- I’m going to set the mower on high here ( see ABOUT )-

ANSCA , which settled land claims between  Alaska Natives and the federal government, was initially assumed by many to  also settle/extinguish the trust responsibility the federal government has for  indigenous groups. That idea seems to have turned on the notion that the responsibility resided entirely in the fed’s management of tribal lands  and that since ownership of lands passed out of federal oversight under ANSCA  the rest of the relationship was ended.

A series of federal actions and state cases reaffirmed the feds’ role in relations with tribal groups independent of property.

There’s a brief history of Alaska tribal status and courts in this historical perspective of tribal courts on the Native American Constitution and Law’s Project’s digitized website.

Before the purchase of Alaska in 1867, tribes in the Lower 48 had already undergone a lengthy history of interaction with the federal government. Treaty making was the typical way tribes were recognized in the legal sense and how aboriginal land claims were ‘settled.’ Congress terminated treaty making with Indian tribes in 1871, long before large numbers of settlers came to Alaska, resulting in the fact that there are no treaties with Indian tribes in Alaska. One hundred years later, in 1971, aboriginal land claims for Alaska tribes were settled not by treaty, but in a unique way through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Although the Act settled aboriginal land claims, it left legal questions about tribal status, jurisdiction, and hunting and fishing rights.


There was a very messy period  sorting out tribal status here . 

The 1990 Adminstrative order from Governor Cowper addressed the issues but was  short lived as a state view at the time.

“Tribes exist in Alaska. The State believes that Native Alaskan tribes exist within Alaska, both on our only federally recognized reservation (the Metlakatla Indian Community on Annette Island), and in other communities. We contend that many Native Alaskan groups could qualify for tribal recognition under federal law, although some would not. The State realizes that the existing federal tribal acknowledgment process is complex and time-consuming, and in many instances is not well suited for use by Alaskan Native tribes. We think that it would be unfair and overly legalistic for the state to treat as tribes only those Native groups that have actually gone through the detailed and complicated federal recognition process. The State believes that it should treat as a tribe any Alaskan Native group that could qualify, even if it has not actually gone through the formal process. The State will treat as a tribe any Alaskan Native group that meets the common sense of the word. For example, we believe that the Native residents of a majority of communities listed as a Native village in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) should be considered a tribe. Although some Native organizations are not tribes–it would be contrary to the intent of Congress, for example, to treat ANCSA corporations as tribes–we believe Native groups should be accorded the dignity of being treated as tribes whenever possible.”

 The next Governor  felt  very differently.  

“… Governor of the State of Alaska, under the authority granted by Article III of the Alaska Constitution and by Alaska Statute 44.17.060, hereby establish the Policy of the State of Alaska on Tribal Government Powers, “Indian Country” and Local Government in Rural Communities for the guidance of state and federal agencies, courts, and the public generally.

The policy of the State of Alaska is that Alaska is one country, one people. The State of Alaska opposes expansion of tribal governmental powers and the creation of “Indian Country” in Alaska.

The State of Alaska recognizes, however, that the laws and procedures for local governments may not adequately meet the needs of Alaska’s rural residents. Accordingly, the State of Alaska is committed to improving local government institutions to meet the needs of rural Alaska communities, including those inhabited predominately by Alaska Natives.”

While I  don’t think it could be said that jurisdiction or hunting and fishing rights have been satisfactorily resolved ,  some state  recognition came   when it became clear that the fed  granted tribal recognition to Alaska Native groups,    with an administrative order from then-governor Tony Knowles in 2000.

I, Tony Knowles, Governor of the State of Alaska, under the authority granted by art. III of the Alaska Constitution, hereby establish by this Order the policy of the State of Alaska on Tribes and their Tribal governments (hereinafter referred to as “Tribes”).


We ended up with federal recognition of over 200 tribal groups based on ANSCA- roughly half of all recognized tribes in America.

Per Wiki, It is important to  “Note that while the names of Alaska Native tribal entities often include “Village of” or “Native Village of,” in most cases the tribal entity cannot be considered as identical to the city, town, or census-designated place in which the tribe is located, as some residents may be non-tribal members and a separate city government may exist. Nor should Alaska Native tribes be confused with Alaska Native Regional Corporations, which are a class of Alaska for-profit corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971.”

This has not been fully accepted instate by any means. As has happened numerous times since federal tribal recognition, things flared up when an application for tribal gambling in Eklutna was submitted in 2007.

Alaska tribal recognition opposed

4 May 2007

EKLUTNA, Alaska – As reported by the Anchorage Daily News: “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.

“…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…”


I don’t know whether the long road to tribal recognition here and  the unwieldy apparatus of  dealing with each village as a tribe as set by the fed  or some  other combination of factors has made us forget the long history of sovereignty of Native peoples in America  but forget it we have.

I think it is important to start from where we really are.

I think this is closer to a starting point  than reacting to the “nation to nation” mention without any background as  to what it might be said to mean.

I haven’t shared what little I know about the Self Determination Act of 1975.

Next time…

Published in: on December 4, 2009 at 5:44 pm  Comments (11)  

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  1. I have a bit better understanding of the history of this topic now – good research! I look forward to reading more pi in the sky!

  2. Having Abenaki blood in my veins makes me more aware of the issues facing others who aren’t *all-white*. We can only continue to work and hope that slow-but-sure strides will be made to protect our lands and peoples. Is it my imagination, or does it seem like Canada is light years ahead of the United States in treating natives more equitably?

    • Hey- GG2C!
      Glad to have you stop by!
      “Is it my imagination, or does it seem like Canada is light years ahead of the United States in treating natives more equitably?”
      Yes and no is probably the right answer.
      Here’s one personal take – it makes me sad… as sad as some of the things which go on here in Alaska
      As both countries are largely made up of immigrants , similar problems exist in each regarding indigenous peoples.

  3. I look forward to following this new blog. I have learned so much already from Anonymous Bloggers, but this answers my need for better understanding of the issues and a much better view of that “elephant” in the living room. Best of luck in this endeavor.

    • Thank you for stopping by and offering words of encouragement , Gramiam!
      I think all I’ve been able to do, so far , is to render a stick-figure sketch of this particular elephant
      If you look at –
      A Brief History in the Context of U.S. “Indian law”
      by Peter d’Errico
      Legal Studies Department
      University of Massachusetts, Amherst USA

      especially the last paragraph, I think you will see that the roughly drawn sketch I’ve made only brings up the merest outlines of the room our elephant is in as well…
      state sovereignty v tribal sovereignty…
      Alaska’s peculiar , in the sense of singular, situation as regards what and who is recognized by the fed as a tribe…

      I can’t say I can see well enough or draw well enough to make all this come into 3 dimensional focus . I’m hoping other Alaskans will stop by and lend a hand…
      Victoria Briggs changed the way I see things with her exhortation for us all to become information-sharers that we may gain the tools to move forward. I’m hoping others will join this walk , this attempt to move purposefully into the future.

  4. You know the scary thing about this whole issue to me is the labeling that goes along with being part of a so called Tribe. I’m an Alaskan Native by blood and I just want to be a citizen of the United States of America because it’s the country I was born into and it’s the country that protects my rights to justice and equality. Allowing the Natives of Alaska to be considered Tribes is a giant can of worms because individuals such as myself gets lost in the shuffle. Besides that, we did not lose any battles with USA, the mainland American Indians did therefore the Treaties. Please refer me to the Treaty that USA has with the Tribes of Alaska and perhaps I’ll change my mind. I’m not aware of any such Treaty and I’ve been around a long time.

    It appears to be a set-up to me. Keep the aborigines fighting with Big Brother. Look at the hundreds and hundreds of years of struggle the American Indian Tribes has had with the U.S. Government. Adding all the Alaska Native Tribes to the table will ensure that the issues remain unresolved for years to come, perhaps another two hundred years? I think it’s very selfish of the current Native leaders to set up this problem for the unborns to deal with in the future. What if we can’t undo this? We will always be second class citizens in our own country, passed on generation to generation to generation. This idea that some of us are more Special then other Americans will lead to grief forever. No, I don’t want that label, I want justice and equality. I want fellow Americans to judge me by character and not by color (In memory of MLK and his efforts to make USA better for all of it’s citizens.)

    • Man_from_Unk-
      I think many, many serious issues flow from our peculiar, in the sense of singular, Alaskan situation with regards to tribal recognition and self determination.
      One of the most important is how we view ourselves and what and where and how we want to move into the future.
      If you have time read


      We are in a very fluid place, a time of great change, in ideas and actions.
      We need to make ourselves aware of what all this is and then we can work on making it be what we want it to be.
      When I talk to people , some see tribal recognition as a blessing, others a curse. Some see it as dividing Alaskans against each other along cultural and/or racial lines, some see it as drawing necessary lines …
      We most of us don’t talk about where it all came from .
      I’m trying very hard not say what my personal concerns are as I’m hoping more folks like you will come and read and add to information and then we can hash out what we think of it all.
      Thank you for coming here. I always learn something from you.

  5. Thank you for keeping an open mind Pi. I’ve always been an outsider looking in because I’m not a full blooded Native. Since the Land Claims, I’m considered an outsider by dominant Regional Natives especially when I travel in the different regions in our state. That bothers me a lot.

    • Man_from_Unk-
      It is a strange walk we take here in Alaska.
      I’m part native as well – but come from a people of whom there are almost no full bloods left. There is more understanding that it is the issues, saving what is important about the old culture while making plans to move into the future as it presents itself now, which bind us together most deeply.

      I live, however, in an area where the issue of “how-much?” is large with the local peoples and the kind of marginalizing of some members of the community that you have experienced is common.
      It is not a good thing.

      I try very hard to listen to what people are saying and what they think…
      Some days it is really hard not to jump up and down and holler ‘ what a load of horsepunky!”
      Most of those days , someone has tried to explain to me why marginalizing someone else for their own gain in sense of belonging is a righteous activity. Agh.

  6. I was talking to a good Eskimo friend (full-blooded) of mine recently and he said that the reason we are having so much turmoil is that we have to remember that our people “are one step out of the stone age”.
    I tend to disagree with him somewhat but that’s okay, he listens to me and I listen to him. Sharing ideas is what communication is all about, good ideas are agreed upon then new learning happens.

    Joining the modern world came about in the 70’s with TV coming to rural Alaska. Our kids are becoming more aware of the world through the exposure of TV. That’s a good thing. It connects them to the common hardships of people all over the world. It makes them think of possibilities beyond their backyard.

    But something is still lacking. We have high rates of kids dropping out of school and ending up living in the villages where the opportunity for employment is limited. I’ve been thinking about that issue and talking about it with my full blooded Eskimo friend. I know we’ll come to some conclusion eventually. We’re hashing it out one talk at a time. Thanks for listening to me.

    • You are lucky to be involved in conversation with someone who will share ideas!
      One of the places I have found language which tries to address what may be lacking is in the writings of Erik H Erikson , specifically in his work – Insight and Responsibility.
      If you can find that little book of essays it offers a rich , fertile ground for conversation and action. This man studied and worked with a larger group of peoples than is common for psychoanalysts . His notions of “virtues” and the stages of human life were developed from observations of many cultural groups and have enough universal application to the general human experience to be a place to start talking about many,many things.


      I can’t find the quote right now but he said something , of which the gist has stuck with me for years and years, along the order that young people can be viewed as trapeze artists , on the verge of adulthood, poised to swing across the gap between childhood and adulthood and into the arms of adult society/culture . He felt that the arms who catch them must be strong and sure and offer a place for young people to take up their work and maturing and that the young person’s PERCEPTION of the strength of the arms which catch them was as important as the actual catch…

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