Governor of Alaska and the Tribal Advisory Council

On October 14th, 2015 at the Egan Center in Anchorage, during a National Congress of American Indians and Alaska Federation of Natives co-hosted meeting of tribal leaders and Governor Walker and his Cabinet members, the governor signed Administrative Order No. 277.  AO277 created the Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council, or GTAC, where 11 tribal leaders from around the state will be nominated and selected amongst the sovereign tribal governments to sit for three years and to advise the Governor of Alaska on 11 different but inter-related Alaska Native issues:

1. Education

2. Healthcare

3. Subsistence

4. Energy

5. Public safety and justice

6. Wildlife and fisheries

7. Economic development

8. Housing

9. Transportation

10. Language

11. Culture

Not since Governor Tony Knowles has such high-level acknowledgment been achieved between the State of Alaska and the 266 federally-recognized tribal governments located within the state, and before that not since ANCSA was passed in 1971 has such a high-profile been designated to Alaska Natives by the state.  Governor Knowles made a misstep, however, in the year 2000 with the “Millennium Agreement,” where the agreement stipulating a state-tribal relationship required an “opt-in” clause for tribes to sign the agreement.  The “opt-in” clause waived sovereign immunity in some respects, automatically creating an unequal partnership between the state and any tribe that signed the agreement.  As a result, not more than 50 federally-recognized tribal governments signed the agreement, and the subsequent “state-tribal relationship” spelled out in the agreement halted entirely.

Under the guise of AO277, there is no waiver or any other reservation requested or required by the state for tribal governments to nominate seats; 11 tribal leaders will have direct access to the Governor’s office and to the various departments under his or her charge, with direction to advise on the 11 topics numbered above.  For too long has the State of Alaska literally fought tooth and nail politically, policy-wise, and in the courts tribal governments around the state.  A few lucky tribal governments have successfully applied for and received “Capital Improvement Project” monies from the legislative Capital budget process, but with the literal drain of funds for FY16 and beyond due to the crash in crude oil prices, options for tribal government participation in the state government apparatus looked minimal.  With GTAC in the opening stages, there is much potential for years of wrongs to be righted in terms of state-tribal relations, and therefore improving tribal governance and increasing governmental capacity in the most remote areas and regions of the state.

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UAF Interior-Aleutians Campus to Host Alaska Native Fish and Game Co-Management Seminar November 19th & 20th, 2015 in Fairbanks, Alaska

Co-Management Symposium

Weaving Together Two Worlds

Purpose: A forum to build understanding, relationships, and knowledge for advancing the co-management of Alaskan fish and wildlife resources.

Progressive focus: Shared value of healthy ecosystems, healthy populations, and resource abundance.

Co-Management is the term that defines systems and opportunities that provide an adequate and meaningful role for Alaska Natives in management of traditional resources. Alaska Natives and their Tribal governments, Tribal consortiums, nonprofits, and corporations have served as stewards of their traditional lands and resources for thousands of years maintaining healthy and productive ecosystems, they have proven knowledge, skills, and abilities to adequately manage Alaska’s fish and wildlife resources. Co-Management refers to a system where those relying upon the resources have a substantial role in making decisions about the management for healthy, productive ecosystems and populations.

Who is this symposium for?
This event will bring together University of Alaska researchers and staff, Alaska Native Tribal and ANCSA corporation leaders and staff, state and federal fish and game managers, and those with the vested interest in seeing successful co-management in Alaska.

Co-Management Symposium – Day 1 & 2
Building on a historical perspective of fish and wildlife management in Alaska, speakers will focus on the contemporary challenges and opportunities for co-management in Alaska today. Successful examples of co-management in action will be highlighted, one-to-one sharing and dialogue will be incorporated,  and collaborative solutions will be identified.

Co-Production of Knowledge – Day 3
In conjunction with the Co-Management Symposium there will be an optional third day for Tribal leaders/staff, university researchers, and agency researchers  that are interested in developing collaborative research partnerships. This interactive workshop will be particularly useful for Tribal leaders who are seeking partners for identified research priorities.

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The Politics of Dispossession – Alaska Context

For the past 10 years I have closely read federal Indian law, from the Supreme Court “Marshall Trilogy” cases to the latest amendments made to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.  I have even compared Aboriginal law and policies between Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.  There are many similarities between all of the former British colonies, or the indigenous peoples’ lands occupied by Euro-Americans.  The League of Nations, of which the Covenant was signed and entered into force in 1920, and the modern-day version United Nations, organized in 1945, would not recognize the unique rights of indigenous peoples across the globe until 2007, when the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was agreed to by the UN General Assembly.  Even then, the declaration is not legally-binding, and only provides guidelines or a framework for nation-states to “begin on the right foot” recognizing indigenous peoples’ relations within fluid laws and policies.  I say “fluid,” because the aim of many indigenous peoples – around the globe, not just in Alaska, not just in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and many countries elsewhere – is to further improve upon the accommodation of indigenous peoples within Western legal regimes.  In this modern day and age, should the Marshall Trilogy really be the pillar of US federal Indian law?  Should Native Americans across the US really allow themselves to continue to be characterized by racial and discriminatory stereotypes, like savages, hunter-gatherers, and plain uncivilized?

Simultaneously, the bilateral Treaty of Cession of 1867 between the US and the Russian Crown made a distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized” Alaska Natives.  According to ourselves, as Alaska Natives, we were never less than civilized.  The Treaty of Cession also included brief mention of “creoles,” as a social and cultural class.  In the fall of 2006 I attended a doctoral dissertation lecture in anthropology by a young Russian lady from St. Petersburg, and her work only included those of “full-blooded” Russians in what is sometimes labelled Russian America.  After she gave her practiced lecture, I raised my hand and asked about Russian creoles or mix-bloods.  She commented it was an interesting question, and replied “I haven’t considered that.”  How can one spend an academic career examining Russian America history and not consider the implications of blood, social, and cultural creoles?  My paternal ancestral line descends from such a lineage.  I had never met nor heard of the young lady prior to her lecture, but how could I not be personally offended by the occlusion of Alaska Natives from such an in-depth, broad historical academic treatment of government and Russian America Company records?  I am still to this day nine years later incredulous and dumbfounded.

All of my grandparents, whom none were non-Native, were born before 1936, the year the Indian Reorganization Act was implemented in Alaska, creating “tribal governments” which the federal government would recognize and treat with on a government-to-government basis.  I imagine all of my grandparents were enrolled into one tribal government or another, even though they all moved from seasonal camp to seasonal camp and did not stay in one place for long.  I also imagine Bureau of Indian Affairs “Indian agents” also pushed on their parents, whom six out of eight were Koyukon Athabascan, to apply for Indian allotments from the 1898 congressional Dawes Act, where individual Native Americans could apply for and receive up to 140 acres of land within their home regions.  From these applications, my four grandparents inherited acreage and so too my parents.  I believe my father inherited a parceled allotment in Galena, and my mother her own parceled allotment in Tanana.  In 2008 I went to Tanana for the first time in twelve years since my grandmother Maudrey’s memorial potlatch in 1996.  I walked around and reminisced and visited with family friends whom were long lost to me, but they knew who I was and never left Tanana for a single day as far as they were concerned.  One of the elders reminded me to look into allotments my grandmother’s family had held and inherited over the years.  Apparently the deeds to several parcels were not accounted for, down the Yukon River from town, as she explained to me.  My cousin and I went for a boat ride down that way to take a look around for animals and stopped at grandma’s old camp to check it out.  Maybe that is where parcels are held in name, I’m not really sure.  I haven’t had the time, nor the expertise, to look into the record, but I imagine from time to time, when I get inheritance papers and identity verification and other such records on my desk, as is temporally required for all of us humans, I will have to look into the record and work with many others to set it straight.  It would only serve our ascendants right.

Next comes the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which dates to my parents’ generation.  In 1971 only my grandmothers survived with their children.  My two younger brothers and I grew up with twenty-one aunts and uncles and countless first cousins.  I have decided I am nothing without my first cousins in the same town, Juneau, where I currently reside.  I tell people, besides law or graduate school, this is the first and only time I will ever live away from my first cousins.  I have decided we are that important to each other, in so many respects, for identity and support as all-too-brief examples.  Rewinding to ANCSA, my grandmothers and my parents and their siblings, in addition to tribal enrollment – my father in Louden Tribal Council and and mother in Tanana Tribal Council, all enrolled into Doyon, Inc, the regional corporation for Interior Athabascan peoples.  My dad and his siblings were enrolled into Gana-A ‘Yoo, Ltd, the village corporation for Galena, and my mother and her siblings enrolled into Tozitna, Ltd, the village corporation for Tanana.  Concurrently, my mother’s maternal uncle Morris Thompson was the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.  Governor of Alaska and soon-after Department of Interior Secretary Wally Hickel and US Senator Ted Stevens at the time had a hand in appointing him to the national position of working with federally recognized tribal governments.  BIA was the federal agency that organized and footed the bill for public hearings on ANCSA and community referenda held across the State of Alaska and even in some Northwest states like Washington, Oregon, and California for Alaska Natives living out of state.  “Uncle Big” would then go on to lead Doyon, Ltd and sit in various statewide leadership positions like the University of Alaska Board of Regents.  I remember him well from my childhood, and would very much appreciate the benefit of his views and insights to this day on state and Native politics, as do many others around the state I’m sure.  I do not hear the label “tribal shareholders” very often, but it does ring a bell: it denotes the dual-recognition Alaska Natives receive from the federal and state governments, and also a sense of unity between ANCSA corporations and tribal governments, which in reality is not always the case.  Either way, many Alaska Natives are both tribal members and ANCSA corporation shareholders, and we all have the right to vote in either forms of elected leadership of our peoples.

Continuing on to my personal experiences and engagement in federal Indian laws and policies, I have worked for Doyon Drilling, Inc, a subsidiary of Doyon, Ltd, and also for the Tanana Chiefs Conference wildland firefighting crew.  Because I am a shareholder of Doyon, I receive a preference for hire in business enterprise like Doyon Drilling, Inc.  The Tanana Tribal Council is a consortia member of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, and since I am an enrolled member of the Tanana Tribal Council, I receive a “Native preference” for hire under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, where tribal members are preferential ahead of non-Natives for hire in tribal governments and federal government agencies like BIA.  Uncle Big coordinated efforts on behalf of tribal governments around the country during the Congressional push for the ISDEAA, when he was BIA Commissioner.  I have worked for many other businesses around the state, and with many good people Native and non-Native, but the qualities of working for and with my fellow Native peoples is invaluable.  How easy it would have been for me as an impressionable young-twenty-something kid in the City and Municipality of Anchorage to make it in the non-Native world, not at all cognizant of “Native pride” or a sense of family history going back further – millennia – than “Western expansion.”  It sounds beyond cheesy, but if the preferential-hire programs did not exist, I would not be where I am today in my career, and prideful as I am of my family history.  At 21 years old going to work for Doyon Drilling put me next to people who have known my family for generations, and I now know and enjoy friendship with many of those people, even though I had grown up in Anchorage.  My first fire season in 2010 I was a member of an all Native squad of five members.  I never enjoyed working 16 hour days for two weeks straight than that experience with those four guys from a different region than I.  I can go to their villages at any given time and their friends and family would treat me as one of their own.

Recently, I was employed by a village corporation to process share transfers from the deceased to their named or by probate inheritors of stock. In the last decade the board of the village corporation decided on transferring whole shares to inheritors, to keep shares from becoming highly fractionated. Some shareholders hold stock up to three decimals, or essentially irrational amounts of shares, not to be equally divided until the shares return to the corporation itself. I was able to tabulate which classes of shares belonged to different age groups, and the board appreciated the work. We’re hoping the board can draft up new policies like creating a new class of shares for the “afterborns,” or descendants of original shareholders born after December 18th, 1971. Even with new enrollment of afterborns, much like fractionated Indian allotments from the 1898 Dawes Act, ANCSA shares are due to become just as complicated as the generations of shareholders age and new enrollees come into the fold. What is especially difficult is for an aged shareholder naming inheritors of their ANCSA stock, where some descendants might be favored and others left out. These are paradoxes concerning individual property vs. collective property.

This is how deep and important and vital Native identities are.  I carry around with me at all times my tribal enrollment card.  Because of the ID card, I can freely use Southeast Alaska Region Health Consortium healthcare services, an Indian Health Service “638” Self-Determination compacting and contracting consortia of Southeast Alaska tribes.  Despite all of this success, what is still at stake – and this is in closing – is subsistence.  ANCSA “extinguished” the exclusive subsistence, hunting and gathering rights of Alaska Natives.  It is our way of life, is in no way an understatement.  Federal lands, fish, and game management agencies recognize rural residency for subsistence harvesting, unless exclusive rights are explicit like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Alaska Native rights to hunt seals and waterfowl.  State lands, fish, and game management, however, recognize no exclusive Alaska Native right to hunt and gather.  Some say state agency managers even work to stall and obstruct federal agency management of subsistence harvesting by Alaska Natives.  When Alaska Natives participate in state agency decision-making fora, we are forced to explain our subsistence practices to sport and commercial fisherman, who often view these practices as “poor,” or “wanting.”  Our way of life has never been poor or wanting, nor do we wish to take animals simply for sport.  The best intersection is commercial fishing between Native and non-Native.  The State of Alaska has one of the longest coast-lines in the world, and all of the regions practice commercial fishing in one form or another.  Even so, local fisherman need protections like the state “limited entry” program, where locals receive and enjoy exclusive commercial fishing rights to a region, and the federal Community Development Quota program, much like the state’s limited entry, but for three miles offshore and beyond to 225 miles in the US Exclusive Economic Zone.  The State of Alaska Board of Game, which manages big game hunting like moose, in the past three decades only allowed for exclusive Alaska Native subsistence harvesting for memorial potlatches in the Interior.  The State of Alaska Board of Fish only has one designated “subsistence” expert seat out of seven total.  The same interests carry their weight in the Federal Subsistence Board to integrate as much as possible state management laws and policies for federal lands like National Parks and Wildlife Refuges around the state.  The political, social, and cultural voices and participation of Alaska Natives have almost been reduced to nothing in the modern lands, fish, and wildlife management in the State of Alaska.  I think about this, a lot, just about on a daily basis.  I can go before the boards and state similarities between the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia for subsistence harvesting, but I would only be patted on the head and be sent on my way.  There has to be a core, fundamental shift in how these boards operate and accommodate Alaska Native subsistence harvesting practices.  Maybe, just maybe, the unreachable ideological heights of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can find some form of applicability in the State of Alaska when it comes to Alaska Native subsistence practices.  The guidelines have to come from somewhere.

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Critique: Attorney General’s Advisory Committee report on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence

The Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to violence was created in 2013 based upon a recommendation from the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence. The Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence is anchored by an advisory committee consisting of federal and non-federal experts on the topic. Last month the advisory committee fulfilled its charge in publishing policy recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder that address issues around AI/AN children exposed to violence. These recommendations are contained in the advisory committee’s report published last month, Ending Violence So Children Thrive (click on the image below to access the pdf).
Screen shot 2014-12-04 at 9.48.38 PM

The advisory committee carried out four hearings and six listening sessions nationwide to learn from key practitioners, advocates, academicians, policy makers, and the public about the issue of AI/AN children exposed to violence in the U.S. The advisory committee was also directed to “gather information on promising and evidence-based practices that could benefit these children and their communities.”

There is a huge need for promising and evidence-based practices for violence prevention in AI/AN communities, reflected in grim statistics that show the vulnerability of AI/AN women and children to physical and sexual violence. And yet research about the violence faced by AI/AN children remains incredibly sparse, making it difficult for tribes and urban Indian organizations to compete for grant funding for prevention and treatment efforts that are not “evidence based,” or to develop community-led interventions that do not simply rely on anecdotes and guesswork.

Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive contains 31 policy recommendations that cover a lot of terrain, spanning from a directive to establish a Native American Affairs Office within the White House Domestic Policy Council to calling on the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase and support access to culturally appropriate behavioral health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services in AI/AN communities. The report states that “many tribal communities are developing and implementing culturally based prevention and intervention programs” yet most tribes “do not have the resources necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs” (p. 62).

The question then is, what difference can top-down policies actually make for families if so little remains known about what’s happening on the ground?

Despite having this understanding, many of the advisory committee’s policy recommendations are formed around the assumption that strengthening tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty are key to preventing violence exposure among AI/AN children. This assumption is most prominent in the report chapter focusing on Alaska, where four of the committee’s five policy recommendations have to do with Congress reinstating Indian Country in Alaska and providing financial support for tribes to develop their civil and criminal justice systems, including their own police forces. Most of these recommendations were lifted verbatim from the Indian Law and Order Commission’s 2013 Final Report. The thinking is that if tribes had a land base over which to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction and a tribal police presence to enforce law, then Alaska Native children and communities would be safer.

The issue isn’t whether or not this should happen (tribes should decide for themselves) but the assumptions about what effect these changes in jurisdiction would actually have on reducing violence. The report points out that Alaska State Troopers have a full-time presence in less than half of the tribal communities, and that this inequitable access to justice can be mitigated by reinstating Indian Country. Yet access to justice and violence prevention are not synonymous. Criminal justice systems and police respond to violent crime (they’re usually reactionary, and that’s part of the problem), they don’t necessarily prevent it from happening.

And when it comes to issues like child sexual abuse, law enforcement and the courts are rarely in the picture because these crimes are hardly ever reported, even in the mainstream U.S. population. Nunavut, Canada provides a counterpoint to the advisory committee’s assumption that tribal police and justice systems will help prevent violence against children. RCMP officers have a full-time presence in each of Nunavut’s 25 communities, yet the crime rate in that majority Inuit jurisdiction has doubled since the territory was created.

Screen shot 2014-12-07 at 10.45.13 PM Nunavut public defenders will tell you that preventing violence against children in this jurisdiction where almost half the population has experienced child sexual abuse, is much more complex than whether or not there’s a police presence in town. In the words of public defender Mandy Sammurtok:

So we’ve got this individual who has grown up thinking that that life is normal. And then we’ve got a system where there’s no treatment available for an individual. There’s no substance abuse treatment available. There’s no mental health treatment, and we also live in little fish bowls where basically the RCMP know everything that’s going on. And that’s fine; it’s good to be safe in a community. So, you’ve got a person who has lived this life and a lot of times, a lot of my clients say, “Oh yeah, and Mandy, uncle whoever” or “that guy down the street, he molested me.” That’s, a lot of times where this is going in a lot of my clients’ lives. And I say it all the time: my client, although he has a victim, he’s also a victim. There are no services available for my client. He didn’t have anywhere to go before he got to the court system. I would always hope that the justice system would be the last stop for an individual. But unfortunately in Nunavut, the justice system is the first stop (Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc., 2014).

Yet in Alaska, the assumption that reinstating Indian Country will make Alaska Native communities safer seems to be gaining traction among Alaska Native tribes. This despite the fact that, as the committee’s own report acknowledges, lower 48 tribal law enforcement has always been chronically underfunded. The advisory committee’s report states that “There is a vital connection between inherent Tribal sovereignty and protecting AI/AN children” (p. 43). This connection is easier to see when it comes to strengthening child tribal protection systems, providing greater Indian Child Welfare Act oversight, and securing mandatory rather than discretionary federal funding for tribal violence prevention programs — all issue addressed in the advisory committee’s policy recommendations. These are defensible recommendations, and Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive advances important messaging about the need for trauma informed care, research, and partnership building.

However the argument that reinstating Indian Country in Alaska and beefing up tribal law enforcement and tribal justice systems will prevent violence against children is more political ploy than solution. It is important to push back on this assumption if we hope to seriously address the pandemic of physical and sexual violence too many of our Alaska Native children are experiencing. We need only look at Canadian Inuit communities that have had a full-time police presence for decades to know that the issues run much deeper. Alaska Native communities do need law enforcement, and empowering tribes to take on this responsibility seems to be the most viable solution. But it is misleading and irresponsible to overstate the role of law enforcement and the courts in preventing violence and other social challenges.

Keeping the focus on real issues, such as the huge gaps in research, mental health services and support and housing that exist in the state, is a start.


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Store-bought food prices in Greenland

I was in Greenland this past May and had the opportunity to visit a few grocery stores in Nuuk and Sisimiut. Just as in rural Alaska and Canada, store-bought foods are flown into Greenlandic communities, mostly from Denmark ostensibly by way of Kangerlussuaq (the main international flight hub) or Nuuk (the largest town and capital). The cost of store-bought foods is therefore more expensive than in mainland Denmark where ground transportation is possible.

As I have discussed in past posts, store-bought foods are extremely expensive in much of rural Alaska and Canada. While we know that high store-bought food prices contribute to a high percentage of food insecure households in Nunavut, Canada, little remains known about household food security in rural Alaska Native communities.

The World Health Organization defines food security as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.

I took pictures of store-bought foods in Sisimiut that are generally regarded as nutritious, such as potatoes, bread, eggs and meats, as well as a few non-food items such as dish soap and diapers. The store, Brugseni, also sold beer, wine and spirits, and had a bakery. The foods I chose were selected at random.

Sisimiut is Greenland’s second largest town about 200 miles north of Nuuk with a population of 5,600. It is accessible only by air and water.

I’ve converted the food prices from Danish Kroner to U.S. dollars and the units from kilograms to pounds. In general, store-bought food prices at Brugseni  (those shown here) and at the three main grocery stores in Nuuk are lower than those I have seen in other Inuit communities like Kotzebue, Barrow and Iqaluit, at least after conversion.

There are probably other factors at play such as local and national taxes and minimum wage that likely distort store-bought food costs in the context of this country and community, but it would seem to behoove policy makers to learn more about Greenland’s food distribution policies.

Efforts to subsidize the cost of store-bought foods in Northern Canada have failed, and perhaps future posts on this blog will explore how the Government of Greenland subsidizes store-bought food costs in its communities, if at all.

“100% Greenlandic owned”

IMG_4776Brugseni in Sisimiut

IMG_4748Red onion, $3.60/2.2 Ibs

IMG_4752Celery, $1.89/.77 Ibs

IMG_4750Potatoes, $20.24/5.5 Ibs

IMG_4753Danish cucumber, $4.50

IMG_4754Iceberg lettuce, $6.30

IMG_4755Pink Lady apples (8), $7.20

IMG_4756Watermelon, $9.89

IMG_4757Bagged avocados (2), $1.89/.78 Ibs

IMG_4758Single avocado, $1.62

IMG_4759Kernel rye bread loaf, $4.68

IMG_4760Market rye bread loaf, $5.00

Small pork chops (6), $9.63

Cubed lean beef, $10.73/1 Ib

Rib eye, $12.87/.8 Ib

IMG_4764Roast beef, $21.49/2 Ib

Ground beef, $5.58/1.2 Ib

Eggs (10), $5.31

IMG_4767Milk, roughly $8 per gallon (1 gallon = 3.7 liters)

IMG_4768Toilet paper (4 rolls), $7.90

Toilet paper (6 rolls), $5.39

IMG_4770Dish soap, $2.25/25.4 oz

IMG_4771Dish soap, $7.18/42.25 oz

IMG_4774Diapers (40), $17.98

IMG_4775Diapers (56), $26.79


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Summary: first report of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council


This post summarizes the first report of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council in order to give readers an overview of the findings and recommendations made by this newly established body. The Council’s recommendations bulleted below are paraphrased summaries – not the verbatim recommendations made by the Council.

In May 2012, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell signed Senate Bill 130 into law, establishing the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council. The Council’s seven members were appointed by Gov. Parnell five months later. Council members serve three year terms. Council members are as follows:

  • Alaska State Senator Donald Olson (Inupiaq) of Golovin
  • Alaska State Representative Benjamin Nageak (Iñupiaq) of Barrow
  • Annette Evans Smith (Council Chair – Athabaskan, Yup’ik and Alutiiq) of the Alaska Native Heritage Center
  • April Laktonen-Counceller (Vice Chair – Alutiiq) of Kodiak College
  • Delores Churchill (Haida) of the University of Alaska Southeast
  • Yaayuk Alvanna-Stimfle (Inupiaq) of the Kawerak Eskimo Heritage Program
  • Walkie Charles (Yup’ik) of the Alaska Native Language Center at UAF

The purpose of the Council is to “recommend the establishment or reorganization of programs to support the preservation, restoration, and revitalization of Alaska Native languages” by advising the governor and legislature on programs, policies, and projects to provide for the “cost-effective preservation, restoration, and revitalization of Alaska Native languages in the state” (p. 4).

The Council published its first report (which you can find here) to the governor and legislature last week, which it is required to do every two years. The report provides a general overview of Alaska Native language status and revitalization efforts, and includes five policy recommendations to the governor and legislature. A summary of the report’s recommendations and findings are bulleted below.

The Council has met 11 times since members were appointed in October 2012. Council members developed a strategic plan in early 2014 that focuses on: 1) funded educational opportunities, 2) research, 3) planning to implement recommendations, 4) work with partners, and 5) ensure sustainability of the Council.

Council members have begun forming partnerships across the state, including with the Alaska Native Language Center and Alaska Native Heritage Center. It has carried out education and outreach at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention and First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference. The Council has also met with other language stakeholder organizations such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

The Council carried out a 33 question online survey between 2013 and 2014, completed by 131 participants representing 65 communities. 90 percent of respondents said they want to learn an Alaska Native language, 80 percent of parents would enroll their kids in a language program and 97 percent of parents would participate in a language program with their children. 85 percent of survey participants know someone who wants to learn to speak, read and/or write an Alaska Native language. Only 50 percent indicated that there is a language program in their community.


  • The Council found research data on Alaska Native language status lacking or outdated, hindering “the formation of innovative solutions to Alaska Native language loss” (p. 10). Policy makers and leaders in Alaska need up-to-date data on language status, speaker numbers, and effective policies and programs. Alaska Native community members also need more information about learning opportunities in their own and other regions of the state.

    Recommendation 1: The Council wants a legislative grant it can use to conduct a comprehensive update of speaker numbers and language status around the state, citing the fact that the Council is working with outdated fluent speaker counts. Council members also want to use this grant to expand and continue research on existing and effective language programs in Alaska which along with Alaska Native Language Center research will be added to an online, comprehensive database.

  • Many Alaska Natives who wish to learn or teach their languages are not aware of learning opportunities or resources through which to do so. These communication and information gaps should be addressed through a concerted statewide effort.

    Recommendation 2: the Council recommends a two-year, public information awareness campaign modeled on Gov. Parnell’s controversial “Choose Respect,” anti-domestic violence campaign. The purpose of the public information awareness campaign would be to “utilize paid and no-cost efforts to share information with the public about the importance of Alaska Native language learning and revitalization” (p. 11). Phase 1 of the campaign would involve Council staff researching, surveying and determining public perceptions and information needs regarding Native language revitalization, restoration and preservation. Phase 2 would identify the campaign’s target audiences in order to “increase awareness of the Council and Alaska Native language programs, increase the desire to learn an Alaska Native language, build partnerships, and facilitate information sharing for the community online database” (p. 12). The Council would later “determine if the information campaign was successful in reaching the intended target audience, key messages understood and feedback provided.”

  • The Council observed that there is no central clearinghouse of information for policy makers, leaders, organizations, or learners to access information about language learning programs, hindering information-sharing and collaboration throughout the state. The Council found vast program differences between regions and few opportunities for inter-Alaska Native collaboration on language issues.

    Recommendation 3: The Council recommends funding for sponsorship of a statewide language summit at the Alaska Native Heritage Center; it also recommends funding to expand the Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Database Online to include information about Alaska Native language statistical information and programs. The purpose of the summit would be to “allow individual regions a greater level of agency to enact region-specific language planning efforts” through information sharing about success stories (p. 15). The Council believes that such collaboration “will encourage communities to take a  leadership role in the activities and initiatives that work best for their location” (p. 15). The purpose of the Community Database would be to “serve as an information clearinghouse for information on regional language statistics, speakers, programs, learning materials, and funding” (p. 16). The website would allow users to submit additional information about their own programs and community efforts as well as to access language learning resources.

  • The Council found large discrepancies between existing language education policy and actual language learning opportunities in schools, as well as variance in resources allocation and access to learning opportunities across the state. The Council cites AS 14.30.420 as its primary example, a state statute from 2000 that “mandates that school districts with a majority of students who are Alaska Native shall establish a local Native language curriculum advisory board” to direct district language initiatives (p. 20).
  • Of the 54 school districts in Alaska, 28 school districts are majority Alaska Native yet only five are in compliance with this statute.
  • The Council also heard testimony about the lack of sufficient funds to support language education in schools and the corresponding need for families, schools, and communities to collaborate to achieve quality language instruction. Survey respondents expressed concern that parents and schools were not providing enough educational opportunities or tools to teach younger generations to learn Alaska Native languages (p. 18).  The Council also cited challenges related to teacher certification given that the majority of fluent speakers are elders.

    Recommendation 4: The Council recommends expansion of Alaska Statute 14.30.420. It wishes to research the statutory threshold of requiring individual, majority Alaska Native schools to comply with the law because there are often majority Native schools within majority white school districts. This would “increase the number of schools that benefit from having a Native language advisory board, and potentially, a Native language curriculum” as required by AS. 14.30.420. The Council also intends to help bring more school districts into compliance with the statute by working with the Alaska Department of Education and state policy makers to educate districts about the statute.

  • The Council found that language speakers’ traumatic experiences with assimilatory policies and language shaming continue to be a barrier to language revitalization. There is a “need for open dialogue and reconciliation within communities and at all levels of the state” (p. 23). Because of the role that governments and policy makers have played in language erosion, “it is reasonable to expect that policy makers participate in the creation of an environment conducive to reconciliation” (p. 24).

    Recommendation 5: The Council recommends the establishment of an annual state holiday, Alaska Native Languages Day, on April 21 (the anniversary of HB 216, the April 2014 bill that symbolically elevates Alaska Native languages to official languages alongside English). The Council also recommends that communities and regions work with the Alaska Historical Commission to collaborate on increasing the number of official Alaska Native language place names approved by the U.S. Geological Survey. Finally, the Council commits itself to continue to hear and record testimony at public events as a way of spreading awareness about the history of language suppression and to promote healing.


The Council believes that despite rapid, ongoing Alaska Native language shift, “well-planned and well-implemented language programs can reverse the trend” (p. 25). Council members believe that their recommendations, if enacted, “would improve the feasibility of future efforts for language revitalization in our state” and “aid policy makers, regions, communities, and families in their interconnected efforts” by “fostering an environment conducive to language use and revitalization throughout communities” (p. 26).

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Groundbreaking Supreme Court of Canada ruling recognizes legitimacy of Aboriginal title

In an historic first today, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation’s Aboriginal title claim to 1,750 square kilometres (1,087 square miles) of territory in interior British Columbia. The unanimous ruling sets a new legal precedent in Canada, where the Supreme Court has never granted a declaration of Aboriginal title to a First Nation until today.

From APTN:

The Supreme Court found that British Columbia breached its fiduciary duty to consult with the Tsilhqot’in and that it had no economic justification for issuing logging permits in the claimed territory, which sparked the over two-decade battle. The province was argued that it stood to benefit economically from logging in the claimed area and also that it needed to stop the spread of a mountain pine beetle infestation.

Aboriginal title can be  loosely understood as a form of land title based on historic use and occupancy. In this ruling the Supreme Court is recognizing pre-contact Tsilhqot’in land use and occupancy as a legitimate basis for contemporary land ownership.

“The doctrine of terra nullius [that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty] never applied in Canada,” the court states in its 8-0 ruling.

Aboriginal title is what was legally extinguished in Alaska by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in exchange for a land settlement and cash. The same is true of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. Legally extinguishing a people’s Aboriginal title erases any future legal claim to land based on historic land use and occupancy.

The ruling will give the Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations whose Aboriginal title has not been legally extinguished important legal leverage from which to negotiate with encroaching extractive industries. This seems to have been a major impetus for the ruling.

From the Globe and Mail:

The Supreme Court elaborated in some detail on how government, resource companies and aboriginal communities with title claims could try to work things out in the new era of aboriginal title. It said government needs a compelling purpose to intrude, and its purpose must be considered from the aboriginal perspective, not just that of the wider public. Ultimately, intrusions will be judged on how they serve reconciliation between aboriginal peoples and the wider population.

At a 1969 hearing, the Iñupiaq leader Eben Hopson pointed out the absurdity of Indigenous peoples having to bear the burden of proving, to colonial regimes and courts, that we have title to our lands based on historic use and occupancy.

Mr. Chairman, when we were in Washington four months ago you asked us to answer a number of questions, one of these related to “unproven aboriginal title”. In the first instance, the words unproven aboriginal title is a misconception. There is no such a thing as unproven aboriginal title. The mere fact that you say “aboriginal” implies that someone was there before you were. 

Nevertheless, it is an important day for Canada. Congratulations to our Aboriginal Canadian friends.

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