Law would set up separate legal system for Native villages

Some Native leaders say proposal is an assault on tribal sovereignty

Posted: Tuesday, February 03, 2004

ANCHORAGE - A federal law establishing a commission to draw up a new legal and governmental system for rural Alaska could have a far-reaching impact on the flow of funds to those villages.

The creation of the Economic Development Committee is part of a budget rider tacked on the Congressional spending bill by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. The rider also calls for a government review of federal funding for Alaska Natives and seeks recommendations for consolidating delivery of services.

The commission, composed largely of finance and business people, would funnel grants and loans to economically distressed rural villages. The grants are designed to promote private-sector investment in the villages.

The funding would pass through the Denali Commission, a Stevens brainchild that in the past has concentrated on public health investments in the Bush.

Since the federal spending bill was passed, most attention in Alaska has focused on the new Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission.

The commission is charged with making recommendations on creating a "unified" law enforcement system, court system, and local governance system for Alaska Native villages and communities.

Some Native leaders said that sounds like an assault on the sovereignty of tribe-run villages.

"People are still scrambling to figure out what the heck does this mean?" said Heather Kendall Miller, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund. "When he says 'unified,' it sounds like he wants to do away with tribes in Alaska and do it by an appropriations rider."

She said the proposal calls for "carving out a different policy for Alaska tribes from every tribe in the Lower 48."

But Mike Irwin, a vice president with the Alaska Federation of Natives, said the mission is wide open. Irwin said it would be up to appointees to the commission to give it focus.

In remarks added to the bill on the Senate floor, Stevens said the commission was not set up to take sides in the dispute over the proper legal standing of tribes in Alaska.

"Rather, it seeks a practical solution to the issue of rural justice and law enforcement," he said.

The nine-member commission is to be appointed by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and have one tribal representative. Alaska Attorney General Gregg Renkes is to be the state co-chairman.

The commission is being administered by the Alaska Native Justice Center, an Anchorage-based nonprofit advocacy group. Denise Morris, the justice center's president, said Friday it's too early to say what direction the group will take in examining governance questions. She said conversations about appointing members have barely begun.

Any recommendations would go back to Stevens and to the Alaska Legislature.

The challenge of merging state and tribal legal systems in Alaska has proved daunting, with neither side eager to give up its separate sovereign power.

Political jockeying stepped up two years ago, when Stevens said funding for Alaska Natives was being dispersed too broadly among tribal governments. He called for consolidation of funding and attached budget riders to bills ordering consolidation. Stevens dropped the riders in exchange for the language creating the new commission.

Native groups met last year in response to calls from Stevens for change. But few recommendations came forward. Most Native leaders have defended the status quo, saying federal self-determination policies have helped develop village-based economies by funding tribes rather than regional organizations.

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