ANCHORAGE - Republican leaders in the state Legislature want the Bush administration to reconsider the formal status granted tribal governments in 1993.
In a letter, Senate President Rick Halford and House Speaker Brian Porter asked the Interior Department to reverse the Clinton-era decision, saying federal recognition of sovereign tribes creates problems for state laws. They said tribes in Alaska are on shaky legal and historical ground and should be acknowledged primarily as a vehicle for funding Native American programs.
The Halford-Porter letter has sparked outrage among tribal leaders in recent days. The letter was written Dec. 10 but began circulating widely a week ago.
In a meeting with Interior Department officials, tribal leaders said their governments are long-established. They said they are vital to Bush governance and safely erected on legal precedent, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
"I view this letter as a paint ball attack on the Alaska Native people," said Joe Williams of Saxman, vice chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council.
Neal McCaleb, the assistant Interior secretary for Indian Affairs, told the tribes he personally opposes any review of Alaska tribal status that could undermine their powers, which already are limited under a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. However, he added, a final decision at Interior on the Halford-Porter request had not been made.
"They're poking the beehive, and it's not necessary," said Mike Williams, who chairs the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council. "They should have contacted us and talked instead of declaring war once again."
"I am not trying to fan those flames and I am sorry if they feel that way," Halford said. "I want to define the powers of tribes. It's difficult for us to know what we can do when we don't know what the ground rules are."
In Juneau, Native legislators were drawing up a response, telling Interior Secretary Gale Norton that the letter did not speak for them.
"There's nothing they can accomplish with this letter, except make Alaska Natives a little more uncomfortable in our own state," said Rep. Albert Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat.