Richard Peterson: Strengthen tribal and state relations in Alaska

Youth from the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes perform at a ceremony in Juneau, Alaska, on March 2, 2016. Photo from Tlingit Haida Central Council / Facebook

Governor, Can We Have That Cup Of Coffee?
By Richard Peterson
President, Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes

Are campaign promises empty promises that no one expects candidates to keep? Have we become that cynical?

Running as the ‘Unity Team’ in 2014, Bill Walker and Byron Mallott promised to improve the state of Alaska’s tribal relations. Mr. Walker said he would rather work on communication and steer away from litigation on tribal issues. In fact, when Mr. Walker made his campaign pitch to a Western Alaska tribal group and when he spoke to members of his new Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council more recently, he said the state and Alaska tribes should stop suing each other and offered a better solution, “Let’s sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk things over.”

It’s time to sit down and have that cup of coffee and talk about whether the state intends to appeal the recent Alaska Supreme Court decision in State of Alaska v. Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska to the United States Supreme Court.

In this case, the Court reached the unremarkable conclusion that Alaska tribal courts, which already handle custody, adoption, and paternity for tribal children, can also handle child support. Despite the Department of Law’s investment of five years, seventeen lawyers, and more than $175,000 to litigate the case, the Court’s decision was unanimous and upheld a 2011 decision by the Juneau Superior Court. How much more does the administration want to invest in fighting Alaska’s own tribes ─ and its own people? Would it not be a better use of time and resources to work together to provide quality child support services for children and families?

Since the state lost its case in superior court five years ago, the Alaska Child Support Services Division and tribal child support agencies have been working together to ensure parents meet their financial responsibilities to their children by providing reliable child support to families striving to make ends meet. Given our current budget shortfall, why would Governor Walker spend vanishing state resources to combat the cooperation that already exists between Alaska tribes and the Alaska Child Support Services Division?

Richard Peterson. Photo from Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes / Facebook

And how much more money will the state throw at this non-problem? Will the Governor hire the same $900 per hour Washington D.C. law firm that the state frequently enlists to fight Alaska tribes? In 2010, the state spent almost $100,000 in an unsuccessful appeal to the United States Supreme Court in the Hogan v. Kaltag case, regarding tribal adoptions. In 2013, the state hired the same law firm and spent almost $200,000 to fight Alaska tribes in the state’s unsuccessful appeal in Alaska v. Sally Jewell (better known as the Katie John case). How many more hundreds of thousands of dollars will the Governor spend with nothing to show except for a further weakened relationship with Alaska’s tribes?

The state should stop wasting resources we don’t have on cases against its own citizens. Faced with budget cuts, the Department of Law can make smarter spending decisions than continuing to bleed money into a losing battle against tribal self-governance. If Governor Walker really wants to strengthen the state’s relationship with Alaska tribes, he should direct the Department of Law to stop the litigation, especially when working with tribes is really the best solution.

Governor Walker has until June 23rd to decide whether to appeal. Now is the time for the administration to show its commitment to establishing a new direction in tribal relations is real. It is time to take this modest step forward. Can we have that cup of coffee, Governor?

Richard Peterson serves as president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a federally recognized Indian tribal government headquartered in Juneau.

Alaska Supreme Court Decision:
State of Alaska v. Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes (March 25, 2016)

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