Sen. Stevens working to cut funding for smallest tribes

Senator says money will go to nonprofit Native groups to increase services

Posted: Monday, July 03, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens is seeking to terminate self-government funding paid to the 23 smallest federally recognized Native tribes in the state.

Among the tribes that would be hurt is Chickaloon Native Village, which has been among the more aggressive and extreme advocates for Native self-government powers in the Anchorage area.

Leisnoi Village, the tribal entity for Woody Island a mile off the coast of Kodiak, also stands to lose funding. Leisnoi has been battling the Interior Department over a ruling that it did not qualify for the island's 115,000 acres under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Stevens said his move will help send federal money to agencies that have a legitimate base. But Chickaloon leaders see the Stevens rider to a pending Interior Department spending bill as a direct assault on sovereignty.

``Stevens is breaking all the trust agreements that have ever been made to tribes in Alaska,'' charged tribal chief Gary Harrison. ``It's economic genocide.''

The state has contended that the Clinton administration erred in 1993 when it declared the existence of 226 Native tribes.

Under the Stevens rider, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would make no tribal priority assistance payments to any Alaska tribe with fewer than 25 members. Twenty-three tribes fall into that category.

Such payments are the backbone of federal tribal support. They can be spent virtually however the tribes wish and often are used to match other federal grant programs to draw even more money. In Alaska, the payments can reach $170,000 or more.

Of the 23 smallest tribes, more than half are listed by the BIA as having no members. Chickaloon, which received nearly $200,000 this year, has nine tribal members, according to the BIA.

But Chickaloon tribal manager Nick Begich said it's wrong to think the tribe is so small.

``We've been able to demonstrate an enrollment of over 250,'' he said.

The problem is that the BIA relies on census estimates, even though many Natives are reluctant to cooperate with census takers, Harrison said.

The Census Bureau figures do not reflect the number of Natives served by a tribal government, Begich said, and it would be unfair to rely on them for funding decisions.

Chickaloon has used the money to develop education and social services programs, Begich said. The tribe also issues its own license plates and is battling the Matanuska-Susitna Borough over its foreclosure of tribal lands for nonpayment of taxes, believing its sovereign status makes it beholden to no state or local government.

Afognak tribal members also stand to lose out under the Stevens rider.

Alisha DeGuzman, tribal administrator for the Village of Afognak, said it would lose more than $150,000 in tribal priority assistance next year. That represents precious cash the tribe needs to organize, she said.

``We have 300 members on the tribal roll,'' she said. ``We are just in the formative process of enrolling them and approving a constitution. This is really disappointing.''

But Stevens is satisfied with census numbers because tribal enrollments can be unreliable. Enrolled members might not live in the village, his aides said, or even the state, where tribal services are offered. And because tribes have sole jurisdiction over deciding their membership, it's possible that some members may not be Native at all.

His rider is backdated, effective June 1, to prevent tribes from recruiting new members to break the membership threshold.

Stevens insisted he is not trying to take money away from the needy. His provision requires that the money taken away from small tribes go to the regional Native nonprofit corporation serving the area to increase services.

``This is money going to them to enhance their organization as a tribe,'' Stevens said of the funding. ``It's needed by areas with 2,000 to 3,000 people without a tax base.''

Aides to Stevens said the senator became alarmed that if he didn't tighten the qualifications for tribal assistance money, the entire program would be attacked as wasteful.

``We can't have the (BIA) calling a village of one family with five people a tribe,'' Stevens said. ``If that happens, it would destroy the program for everybody.''



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