Stevens backs GOP tribal status inquiry

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Sen. Ted Stevens says a letter sent last month by Republican legislative leaders to the Interior Department was a legitimate request for clarification of tribal powers in Alaska.

Alaska Senate President Rick Halford and House Speaker Brian Porter, in a Dec. 10 letter, asked the Department of Interior to reverse a 1993 decision that granted tribal status to more than 225 villages in Alaska. The legislators said assertions of tribal sovereignty in Alaska are not legally sound.

The letter drew fire from Alaska Native leaders. Joe Williams of Saxman, vice chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, called the letter ''a paintball attack on the Alaska Native people.''

Stevens told reporters Monday that, while he has no argument with the existence of Alaska Native tribes, he has long been concerned with the idea of recognizing every village as a tribe.

''I agree there's a problem,'' Stevens told Alaska reporters here Monday.

Stevens said Assistant Secretary of the Interior Ada Deer's 1993 decision misinterpreted Congress' intent in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

That act, passed in 1971, provided land and a corporate structure to villages with 25 or more people in them.

''We did not decide that every place with 25 or more people was a tribe,'' Stevens said. ''She decided that every village was a tribe. There was no historical basis for that finding.''

Stevens said he would meet with Native representatives Monday.

Stevens has taken at least one legislative step to pull back federal support for small tribes. In the fiscal 2001 spending bill for the Interior Department, Stevens blocked a certain type of basic funding for tribes with fewer than 25 members living in their home villages. Congress put the block into law this year.

Stevens said funding so many small tribes was inefficient, and he redirected the money to regional Native nonprofit groups such as Tanana Chiefs Conference. The money amounted to about $150,000 each for several tribes.

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