ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Thursday signed a bill recognizing Alaska’s Native tribes, in a formal acknowledgment of tribes’ sovereignty by the state.
The bill signing event was held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where a large and emotional crowd included tribal leaders, state lawmakers and candidates running for elected office.
The measure sponsored by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat, passed the Legislature in May with bipartisan support. Zulkosky, who is Yup’ik, on Thursday called the bill “a historic milestone” in advancing state-tribal relations. The bill, she said, is “a statutory recognition of a simple truth — that tribes exist in Alaska.”
Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka said in a statement ahead of the bill signing that for the more than 220 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, the bill will mark “a step toward building a stronger relationship with our state government.”
The federation said in a statement that “the statute does not impact the existing legal status of Alaska Tribes, nor does it change the state’s responsibility or authority. However, it does recognize Alaska’s Indigenous people. This recognition will help unify our tribal governments with the state government.”
Alaska follows several other states that have recognized tribes within their borders, including Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia.
Tribal leaders highlighted that tribes in Alaska are already responsible for providing services for tribal members and others, relying on designated federal funding to boost education, health and infrastructure, among other services.
“Tribes are an economic force in Alaska. Hugely so,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham.
Edgmon’s vision, he said, is that “tribes are not only going to be at the table, they’re going to be at the head of the table.”
The tribal recognition bill is similar to an initiative that was slated to appear on the ballot later this year. Because the legislation passed, the initiative will not appear on the ballot.
Dunleavy on Thursday also signed a bill creating a state-tribal education compact, which is designed to give tribes greater control over education programs for tribal members.
Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak, who sponsored the bill, said it would create opportunities to incorporate Native cultures and languages into tribal school curricula.