Why you might see tribal recognition on Alaska’s 2022 ballot

people hold up signs that spell out "VOTE"
Volunteers and organizers gather in Anchorage in 2020 to remind residents to vote. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer has certified an initiative that would require the state of Alaska to officially recognize all of Alaska’s federally recognized tribes.

The action means a group called Alaskans for Better Government can start collecting signatures to put the measure before voters next year. Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson chairs the group.

“As we try to build communities, build a better Alaska, it’s about relationships,” said Peterson, who is also president of the Tlingit & Haida Central Council. “And so the fact that the state of Alaska doesn’t recognize us currently is kind of a barrier in the building blocks, right? So that’s what it really comes down to.”

The federal government recognizes 229 Alaska tribes. That recognition acknowledges that the tribes are sovereign and have a government-to-government relationship with the feds.

In a legal opinion on the initiative, an Alaska assistant attorney general said it’s not clear that recognition would have any legal effect on the relationship between the state and the tribes. But he said there’s nothing unconstitutional about the proposal.

Organizers of the initiative say state recognition is hugely symbolic but would have practical impact, too. Barbara Wáahlaal Gíidaak Blake noted that a lot of tribes are in places with no other form of local government.

“And when trying to do business with our communities when there’s a lack of municipal governments, a lot of state departments will choose to just ignore having conversations with the local people when coming in to do any kind of work in our communities,” Blake said. “And so it does create somewhat of a barrier.”

A bill to require state recognition passed the state House this spring but wasn’t brought up in the Senate. 

To get on the 2022 ballot, initiative organizers will have to collect more than 36,000 signatures.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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