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Alaska Natives confront debates over legal status
Tuesday, October 21, 2003

As thousands of Alaska Natives meet in Anchorage this week for an annual conference, one topic on their mind is a push by a powerful senator to change the way they receive federal funds.

Last October, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) of his desire to consolidate funding, perhaps into regional organizations, for Alaska's 227 federally recognized tribes. Among the factors driving his proposal was a tight budget and the need to be more accountable.

The message was well heard by the delegates. In response, Native leaders set up a group to study the issues Stevens raised, and earlier this year, they presented his staff with a report that they hoped would spell an and to the idea.

But consolidation is back on the table as Natives from across the state return to the AFN convention. Many are upset to learn that Stevens has already inserted language in a bill to divert funding for village courts and law enforcement to the state, and that he is considering another provision to consolidate housing funds.

Comments he recently made to members of the press are also drawing alarm. On October 2, he said it was unrealistic for each village to expect to receive federal funds for court systems that threaten state sovereignty.

"The road they're on now is the road to destruction of statehood because the Native population is increasing at a much, much greater rate than the non-Native population," he said.

To some in the Native community, the remarks were racist and divisive. "We became the other N-word just by him saying that alone," said a caller on the radio program Native America Calling yesterday.

To others, the remarks represent something even deeper. Heather Kendall-Miller, a Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney who works in Alaska, said in an interview that Stevens was attacking the sovereignty of the state's indigenous population.

"We want him to pull back these riders and acknowledge the existence of tribes in Alaska, stop undermining them, start listening to them and start consulting with them and hear why tribal governments are important to their communities and what they are doing for their membership," she said. "We want him to stop his assault on tribalism."

Kendall-Miller appeared on Native America Calling yesterday with Don Mitchell, an attorney in private practice. Though he once served as a vice-president for AFN, Mitchell has challenged the sovereign status of Alaska's tribes over the years, authoring a brief in the Venetie U.S. Supreme Court case that found there was no Indian Country in the state and participating in other litigation involving Native rights.

The latest is a suit that questions whether hundreds of Alaska Native villages were properly recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In October 1993, former assistant secretary Ada Deer put the villages on the list of federally recognized entities.

"Is there a statue that authorized Ada Deer to do that?" Mitchell said on the radio program. "Many of us do not think so. If in fact we need to establish that in court, that is not terminating [Alaska tribes] that is merely saying that Ada Deer acted unlawfully in 1993."

According to Mitchell, who wrote the Venetie brief in 1997 on behalf of Stevens, the debate over funding should be kept separate.

"Alaska Natives who live in more than 200 communities around Alaska are entitled to the same federal services and programs that other Native Americans receive because of their status of Native Americans," he said. "How best to deliver those services is a very difficult problem given the logistical challenges of rural Alaska."

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Stevens has used his position to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to Alaska. Native villages, regional corporations and other groups have benefited handsomely over the years thanks to Stevens. Some on the radio program, while critical of his remarks, still said they support attempts to make the system more accountable and fair, perhaps by establishing a minimum on the number of members a tribe must have for federal status.

Early on, the Bush administration was asked to reconsider the status of Alaska's tribes. Former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb, who retired last December, told Indianz.Com in February 2002 that revoking their status was not on option.

But Kendall-Miller said it was unclear whether Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, who is recused on Alaska Native subsistence issues because she helped Republicans in the state fight the landmark Katie John subsistence rights case, would live up to that pledge. Her lawyers are set to respond to the suit Mitchell is involved in later this week.

"The Interior Department is also bound by law," she said in an interview. "To the extent they can ignore it, that's the big question."

On the radio program, more the one caller said it may be necessary to revise the list to eliminate villages that no longer exist. One said "ghost" villages are receiving federal dollars even though they are no longer located in their historical area.

"If that ever blew up, in the The Washington Post or something," Mitchell warned, "Sen. Stevens would have a very difficult time continuing to get funding for Alaska Natives."

At the same time, callers said tribes should have the right to decide whether consolidation is right for them. "We're going to look at a 20-year setback, I think," said one, "if [we] became regionalized again."

The main AFN conference takes place October 25-25. Youth and elders are meeting earlier in the week.

Relevant Links:
Sen. Ted Stevens - http://stevens.senate.gov
Native American Rights Fund - http://www.narf.org
Alaska Federation of Natives - http://www.nativefederation.org/flash.html

Related Stories:
Alaska Natives meeting for annual conference (10/20)
Editorial: Stevens should apologize for remarks (10/13)
Murkowski won't offer opinion on Native riders (10/13)
Stevens blames sovereignty push on lower 48 group (10/9)
Stevens remarks on Alaska Natives draw fire (10/7)
Alaska Natives oppose limits to tribal court funding (09/23)
Alaska court hears suit on village law enforcement (09/18)
Bill cuts funds to Alaska tribal justice systems (09/10)
Alaska Natives debunk federal funding myths (05/07)
Stevens files Alaska Native gaming rider (01/24)
Alaska Natives press unity on sovereignty (10/25)
Stevens: Too many Alaska Native tribes (10/24)
AFN events kick off today in Anchorage (10/21)
GOP request has Alaska Natives fuming (1/28)
Stevens: 'Problem' with Alaska Natives (01/29)

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