FAIRBANKS - U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said he plans to ask federal agencies to give him a list of Alaska Native tribes receiving grants so he can determine whether they are eligible for the money.
"I've been hearing about phantom villages for a long time," Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said Wednesday. "I have had the allegation before, but no one has been willing to put it in writing for me."
Stevens showed reporters a letter from a tribal administrator, whose name was removed from the correspondence, that said tribal groups for Ugashik, Ekuk, Ivanof Bay and Kanatak in his region represented "phantom villages."
"Since the Bristol Bay region has four phantom villages, how many more are there in other regions of Alaska?" the letter asked.
The Kanatak council president, Terrence Shanigan, said Wednesday that his 130 members no longer live at the village site on the Alaska Peninsula, but that doesn't make the tribe a phantom.
Shanigan said about 60 percent of tribal members, including himself, live in Anchorage and Wasilla. Another 30 percent live outside Alaska.
The remaining members live in the Bristol Bay region, though not at Kanatak, which was covered with ash in the 1912 Katmai explosion and later revived as an oil exploration and mail hub before it was abandoned in 1955.
A tribe's authenticity should not be questioned just because it doesn't own land and no one lives in the original village, Shanigan said.
"We should not have to legitimize our Native heritage and our ancestry based on land ownership," he said.
Stevens said he had heard before that some of the Alaska tribes the federal government recognizes are "nonexistent entities" - empty villages, or villages inhabited by one or two families. Still, because they are federally recognized tribes, they can obtain certain government payments simply by applying.
A few years ago, Stevens changed federal law to say that a tribe must have at least 25 people to qualify for one program, the Tribal Priority Allocation.
"Now I'm told that a number of these villages, as tribes, have adopted people, Native and non-Native, that live somewhere else" to bring the tribe up to the threshold, he said.
The federal government recognizes some 230 tribes in Alaska. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that, unlike their counterparts in the Lower 48, Alaska tribes don't have the power to govern a specific reservation or territory. They do exercise authority over their members, but the extent of that authority is in dispute.
Don Mitchell, a former Alaska Federation of Natives lawyer in Anchorage who opposes tribal sovereignty claims in Alaska, said some connection between a tribe and a locality should be a necessary condition of receiving money.
Mitchell said he figured there are roughly six to eight tribes in Alaska linked to entirely abandoned villages, and several more tribes with just a few residents in place.
"There is some connection between a physical locality and the reason the group is being funded by the federal government," he said.
The Kanatak tribe receives about $200,000 a year in federal grants, Shanigan said. About 25 percent of that has been spent on administration in the past, though that fell to 13 percent in the last year.
Shanigan said the tribe misused some of its money a few years ago and even got involved in a counterfeiting ring busted by the Secret Service. Shanigan said he and a group of younger tribal members have since reformed the organization.
Stevens said he hopes AFN delegates, meeting in Anchorage this week, will see his request for more information from federal agencies as advocacy, not an attack.
"I think it's intended to protect the bulk of Native people who need the money," he said. "It is an attack on those who are, in my opinion, fraudulent."
Stevens said he wants to somehow pool money going to the smaller tribes to improve the efficiency of the services they deliver.
"All I'm interested in is getting the money where it's needed," he said.