A Fight for Sovereignty in Alaska's Native Villages State's Legislators Are Determined to Overturn a Federal Court Decision and Take Self-Rule Away

Article excerpt

Across Alaska's vast wilderness lie America's most traditional tribal societies - more than 220 Eskimo, Aleut, Athabascan, Tlingit, and Haida village communities spread over an enormous land mass encompassing one-sixth of the United States.

For centuries these tribes have struggled to hold fast to their traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering societies, bypassing the less fortunate experiences of the "lower 48" tribes that endured Indian wars and removal to distant reservations. Even so, they own or control but 5 percent of the state, mostly through native-controlled corporations.

Although their isolation has permitted them to survive in subsistence-based communities, Alaska's villages today face a new battle - a concerted attack by the State of Alaska and its congressional delegation to extinguish their inherent right to govern themselves. It is an attack against villages that are already grappling with severe poverty in a changing world. Desperate conditions Conditions in Alaska's tribal communities are desperate. In 1994, the distinguished Alaska Natives Commission found that most native villages were plagued with extraordinarily high rates of alcoholism and teenage suicide, inadequate education, poor health, and virtually no cash economy except for welfare payments. The commission made dozens of recommendations to improve village economies, judicial and law enforcement efforts, local self-determination, local education, and physical and behavioral health. The common thread in these recommendations was securing the right of village tribes to exercise local self-government - sovereignty - over their communities, just as other native American communities do in the contiguous 48 states. The commission called on the federal government to remove the remaining clouds over tribal self-government in Alaska and to resist state efforts to weaken tribal sovereignty. These recommendations are not surprising. In a much noted study of native populations in Canada, America, and Mexico, Harvard economics professor Steven Kalt concluded that more than money or other governmental benefits, the single greatest factor leading to healthier and more successful native communities is their ability to exercise their sovereign right of self-government. At long last this goal is at hand. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently rebuffed an 11-year-old challenge by the State of Alaska to the tribal sovereignty of the native village of Venetie, a small tribal community located deep in Alaska's interior. With this victory - which rejected claims that a 1971 congressional native land settlement abolished Venetie's governmental power - the courts have given legal confirmation to the sovereignty that native villages have exercised for millennia. But the battle is not over. In March 1997, the state legislature, which pleads poverty when asked to fund fresh water systems, had no trouble appropriating $1 million to overturn this ruling, if not in the US Supreme Court then in Congress. …

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