The group charged with the formidable task of negotiating an accord establishing a formal government-to-government relationship between Native tribes and the state of Alaska will meet in Kenai on Wednesday and Thursday.
This is the third meeting of the State-Tribal Relations Team, which was formed by Gov. Tony Knowles in January. It is charged with coming up with an accord in time to be ratified at the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council's December meeting.
However, if an agreement cannot be reached by the end of the year, the group will take whatever time is needed, said the governor's assistant press secretary, Claire Richardson.
"This is probably not the last meeting," Richardson said. "But it depends on how it goes."
The federal government formally recognized Alaska tribal governments in 1993 with the issuance of a new tribal entities list from the Interior Department. Congress, with the support of Alaska's delegation, approved the list in 1994. The State-Tribal Relations Team is Knowles' effort to formally recognize tribal governments on a state level through what he calls the Millennium Accord.
"... (T)his can be no ordinary negotiation," Knowles said at last year's Alaska Inter-Tribal Council meeting. "Too much is at stake. To forge an enduring and positive relationship between the state and tribes, we must make sure all Alaskans have an understanding and appreciation of the respective roles of tribal and state governments."
The state negotiation team is led by Attorney General Bruce Botelho and includes several other Cabinet members.
The tribal negotiating team is made up of 46 Natives from tribes across the state. The tribes are led by Joe Williams II of Saxman, who serves as co-chair of the team with Botelho.
Cook Inlet Natives on the negotiating team include Stephanie Thompson, Alexander Creek; Lee Stephan, Eklutna Native Village; Fred Elsaas, Seldovia Village Tribe; Robert Fulton, Kenaitze Indian Tribe; Rosalie Tepp, Kenaitze Indian Tribe; James Showalter, Kenaitze Indian Tribe; Gary Harrison, Chickaloon Village Tribal Council; Don Kashevaroff (alternate), Seldovia Village Tribe.
"Both the state and the tribes are eager to work and come to agreement," said Showalter, vice chair of the Kenaitze tribe.
The accord, or what some tribes like to call "the agreement," if passed, will allow tribes to negotiate and work with different state agencies as independent governments.
Showalter said having government-to-government relations would streamline many aspects of dealing with the state.
"Say, fish and wildlife or highway or justice, they will speak with tribes on a definite government-to-government relationship," he said. "Whereas before, they may talk to you, they may not, it depends on what division you're talking to."
The agreement would make it easier for something such as a tribal court to be established and share jurisdiction in certain matters.
"Let's say the tribe has a court system, an ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) court. With an agreement with the state, we can work for the best placement of (Native) children," Showalter said. "If the state and tribal courts work together, not separately, the child can be placed with the child's family or extended family."
Knowles has appointed commissioners from many state departments to the negotiating team. Besides Botelho, there is Karen Perdue of Health and Social Services; Deborah Sedwick and Bernice Joseph of Community and Economic Development; Richard Cross of Education and Early Development; Frank Rue of Fish and Game; Glenn Godfrey of the Alaska State Troopers; Barbara Ritchie of the Department of Law; and Mary Pete of the Division of Subsistence.
Assisting the team is the governor's chief of staff, Jim Ayers, Assistant Attorney General Judy Rabinowitz and former Tanana Chiefs Conference President Will Mayo.
Mayo is the governor's senior rural policy adviser.
"I'm delighted by the positive and upbeat feeling I'm getting from tribal leaders since the announcement of these talks," said Mayo, a longtime tribal activist. "I think the governor's initiative has resonated deeply all over the state, and people are excited about it."
The meeting, held at the Kenai Merit Inn, begins at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday with an hour of opening ceremonies and introductions.
At 1:30 p.m., there will a panel discussion on successful models of state-tribal relations in Alaska, moderated by Williams and featuring Randy Mayo and Dewey Schwelenberg of Stevens Village, and Howard Marmelstein of Heely Lake.
It will be followed at 2 p.m. by a session of the Millennium Accord Working Group.
On Thursday, there will be two sessions of the working group, one at 9 a.m., the other at 1:30 p.m.
"There's still a lot of work to be done on it," Showalter said of the accord. "How it comes together depends on what kind of wording is in the agreement, and how the state recognizes tribes, and how tribes recognize the state."
He said there are always sticking points in negotiations like this, and wording changes on the state side and tribal side is what takes time to work out.
"The future looks good," Showalter said. "All we have to do is come to agreement."
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