ANCHORAGE - Delegates from about one-quarter of Alaska's 229 federally recognized tribes signed an agreement Wednesday formalizing relations between state government and tribal leaders.
About 60 delegates signed the Millennium Agreement in hopes of improving relations with the state.
"With this agreement, we acknowledge something that tribal leaders have known all along, that their governments are the modern day expressions of the oldest, continuous political entities in North America," Gov. Tony Knowles said to applause at the signing ceremony.
Signers from Southeast included representatives of the Juneau-based Tlingit-Haida Central Council as well as tribal groups in Yakutat, Angoon, Ketchikan, Haines, Sitka and Craig.
Knowles in December 1999 invited Alaska's Natives to negotiate an agreement for a state-tribal relationship.
"Today is a new beginning for all the tribes of Alaska," said Joe Williams, co-chairman of the State-Tribal Relations Team. "I strongly believe this agreement will lead to a stabilized, improved relationship with the state."
Williams said the agreement gives tribes the power to take their concerns to the state and get them heard.
"Prior to this the state could say we don't need to talk," he said.
Improved delivery of services such as health care and education, and more control over subsistence fishing and hunting, were on the minds of some of the delegates who lined up to sign the agreement.
"I'm here to get support from the state agencies and the Legislature. They don't understand the things we need and they aren't helping us," said Almira Beatus, a delegate representing the 70 to 80 people of the Hughes tribe northwest of Fairbanks. "They are cutting back on education. We need more teachers, better classes."
Gary Kompkoff, a delegate from the Tatitlek tribe of Prince William Sound, said he wants his tribe to have more say in the management of natural resources. The tribe of about 100 people lives near the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that dumped 11 million gallons into the sound.
"I think we need to be more involved in the management of those issues," he said.
Several protesters holding signs that read "Don't sign. It's a trick," and "Where is informed consent?" marched briefly through the ballroom crowded with tribal delegates
Patrick Saylor, chief of the Healy Lake Traditional Council near Fairbanks, said his tribe opposes the agreement because it recognizes state sovereignty. Only the federal government and the tribes are sovereign entities, he said.