After two days of meetings in Kenai this week, the state of Alaska and Alaska Indian tribes are closer to reaching a historic agreement that will change the way each relates to the other.
However, they did not come to a final agreement and will have to meet again.
Charged with developing the "Millennium Accord," members of Gov. Tony Knowles' Cabinet and Alaska Natives waded through their respective versions of the agreement, trying to find common ground.
But both co-chairs, Joe Williams of Saxman and state Attorney General Bruce Botelho, lauded the meeting as resolving much of the sticking points in the draft document. The pair will meet today in Anchorage to discuss a planned meeting date for the fourth negotiating session. There was some talk of scheduling it right after the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council's meeting on Dec. 2, but that had not been set in stone.
In the meantime, the draft agreement will be circulated among the 200-plus federally recognized Indian tribes in the state for their comments.
One of the main sticking points that did not get resolved is the issue of tribes recognizing the sovereignty of the state of Alaska.
"There are definitely different forms of sovereignty," Williams said. "We'll just ask that tribes respect the different forms."
"We'll reserve sovereignty for further discussion," Botelho said. "The perspective one should have is that governments don't need to see eye to eye to have a constructive relationship. There will be ongoing disputes. We're not requiring a conversion to the other's world view."
Some tribal members walked out of the meeting on the sovereignty issue, however.
Juanita Petla-Moore, originally from Bristol Bay and now of Nikiski, said if the accord is passed and the state of Alaska's sovereignty is recognized by the tribes, it would lend legitimacy to a government she feels is illegitimate because it assumed control of the land illegally.
"We split because the agreement will give recognition the state does not deserve," Petla-Moore said. "The tribes are not fully informed."
Dillingham Native activist Ron Barnes agreed.
"More information needs to go to the tribes," he said. "They need to see how a so-called domestic agreement could affect our international rights."
Barnes did not walk out of the meeting, though, and said the State-Tribal Relations Team process was good in that "for the first time it was very clear that the state really wants to be recognized" as a sovereign government.
If ratified by both tribes and the state, the agreement would establish government-to-government relations among the groups. Williams described the net effect as allowing tribal input in state decisions that affect them.
During the lunch break on Thursday, the groups heard from Ron Allen, chair of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe in Washington state. Allen was one of the architects of the "Centennial Accord" that established government-to-government relations between Washington and its Native people.
He described the process and the ensuing document as a forum the groups can use to grow together.
"This is a giant first step. It is not the last step," he said. "This is a handshake among leaders and nations."
Allen cautioned the tribal team that the agreement was not a panacea and would be a two-way street.
"It's not just about how the state deals with you, but how you deal with the state," he said. "The accord will not solve all of your problems."
"This is not a perfect document because it was drafted by imperfect people," he said. "I cannot sit here today and say this is the best document, but we've met in the middle of the road.
"I'm quite frankly pleased with the work that we've done here."
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