August 15, 2010

Are any of the natives in Alaska recognized as a sovereign nation? What does sovereignty mean?



1.  Are any of the natives in Alaska recognized as a sovereign nation?  For instance, can they issue their own passports?
2.  I have read a little about Faith Braswell of the Kitoi tribe. Have you heard of her or of this tribe and if so, where are they located?

     ~Submitted by Steven J

Hi Steven,
There are 229 federally recognized indian tribes in Alaska. The Alaskan tribes speak 20 different languages, belong to five geographic areas, are organized under thirteen Alaska Native Regional Corporations and have eleven different cultures. Alaskan natives make up 20% of the population of the state of Alaska.

All federally recognized tribes are sovereign nations, but they don’t issue passports. (Some tribes in the lower 48 states do issue driver’s licenses and car license plates, but not all of them.) Anyone can visit an indian nation without a passport both in Alaska and the lower 48 states. The only “border crossing” is a road sign saying you are entering such and such reservation. (In Alaska, they probably don’t even have signs, since the only way in to many of the indian villages is by dogsled or plane because they don’t have roads over much of Alaska.)
Sovereignty means that Native Nations can establish their own laws to regulate their citizens (tribal members) and actions done upon their own national lands, as all nations do. For example, tribal police and tribal courts have jurisdiction over crimes comitted on reservation lands, in most instances. They can make their own laws and establish penalties for breaking them. The exception is a capital crime, such as murder or kidnapping, then the F.B.I. has jurisdiction.
A  tribal Sovereign Nation can deport an unwanted individual from their nation, whether they are a tribal member or not. Indian nations do not have to collect US federal or state use taxes, which creates a big price decrease on items sold on indian nation lands such as gas (which contains road use taxes) or cigarettes (which have federal and state tobacco taxes to offset health care costs) . Members of Indian nations do pay federal and state income taxes to the US Government and their respective state if the state has a state income tax, since in essense, they have dual citizenship — in their tribe and in the United States.  
Tribal nations can create their own tribal taxes, too, similar to state taxes, such as charging more for a non-resident hunting or fishing license or adding a tax to gas for road repairs on the portion of the road that crosses the reservation. 
Sovereignty also means a state that outlaws gaming for its citizens cannot — theoretically — prohibit it for tribal national land that happens to lie within the state’s boundary. That’s where tribal casino success comes from: the ability to satisfy an entertainment desire in areas where states prohibit it. More about that in a moment.
In Alaska, tribes are organized differently than they are in the lower 48 states. They don’t have any reservations created by the US Government. Instead, they received a large cash settlement for their lands under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA), the same act that gave them federal recognition and sovereignty as indian nations (tribes).
The aboriginal land claims of Alaska Natives were handled differently than the mainland treaty settlements. The land and cash compensation were not awarded to tribes, clans, or families, but to eligible private corporations organized by Alaska Natives.

There are generally two types of native corporations: corporations organized by village and those organized according to 13 geographic regions. 12 geographic regions are in Alaska and the 13th is the Sea-Alaska Corporation based in Seattle, Washington. All federally recognized Alaska Indians are shareholders of a regional corporation, but not all belong to a village corporation.

Tribes in Alaska aren’t usually called tribes, they are called Villages. This is because each village (town) is usually a separate tribe. They still live in the same small villages that they have always lived in. Most villages are made up of less than five hundred individuals, or in some cases less than 50 people. Sometimes a half dozen or more villages make up one tribal nation, such as the Tlingit, but usually one tribe is made up of one village.
Five Tlingit tribes do not have federal recognition under ANCSA, and there are many other tribes that are not recognized. Just as in the lower 48 states over 200 indian tribes are not recognized by the federal government, Alaska has many tribes that are not officially recognized by the US Federal Government.
 Instead of a tribal council making economic decisions, as they do in the lower 48 states,  in Alaska they have 13 regional corporations, each of which takes care of the business affairs of a number of villages in their region. As with all corporations, they have share holders, which have voting rights in how the corporation is run. The Alaskan Natives that belong to a corporation are the shareholders of their respective corporation. In essence, the regional corporations are business entities owned by the federally recognized native people in their respective region — they are not a tribal government, although they make many decisions for their member tribes. The money the Alaskan tribes received under ANCSA was invested to form these corporations, along with some individual village corporations, which own and administrate various businesses for the tribal members.
Koniag, Inc. is one of the 13 regional corporations established by ANCSA. Approximately 3,400 people of Alutiiq heritage were enrolled as shareholders to the corporation. Those enrolled were Alaska Natives who were born on or before December 18, 1971, were living on that date and enrolled to the Koniag region. Each Native enrolled to Koniag received 100 shares of stock.
The villiage of  Kitoi is in the Koniag region, but is not one of the federally recognized villages, although most of the Kitoi people are of Aluet (Alutiiq) descent, a people originally thought to  have originated in Siberia and who migrated to Alaska thousands of years ago. Because they do not have federal recognition, they are not part of the regional corporation and hold no shares in the corporation’s investments. The BIA also says it has no application on file petitioning for recognition of the Kitoi.
In the continental US, most tribes (that have reservations- not all do) have a large (mostly) continuous block of land called a reservation that is collectively owned by it’s members and ruled by a tribal council (usually made up of a chief and 10 or 12 council members) that are elected by the people of that tribe, usually every two or four years.
A reservation may contain more than one tribe that are not related (in some cases a dozen different tribes, which are called Confederated tribes), or a single tribe, several or many separate towns, individual allotments owned by a particular indian family and their heirs, allotments that were sold to white people by the US Government long ago (in some cases over half the reservation land is owned by white people), and land that is collectively owned by the whole tribe and managed by the tribal council for that reservation, with heavy input from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) on many of the allowed uses of the land and collection of fees for mineral rights and grazing leases, which are paid to and supposedly distributed to the Indians by the BIA (a whole other issue), etc. Uses, exchanges, and sales of reservation lands usually have to be approved by the BIA before the tribe can proceed with their plans, and there is an extensive legal process to go through before a tribe can start an enterprise such as a gambling casino, that often takes 10 years or more.
Reservations in the lower 48 states were set aside by the US Government through acts of Congress, and in most cases indians were relocated from their traditional lands somewhere else to a reservation far from their original homelands. In the last 50 years or so, many tribes have also bought additional land which they have annexed to their reservation. A reservation may be millions of acres, or a city block, or just a few lots, depending on the tribe. While the original reservation is usually a continuous block of land, tribes can purchase or trade for other lands that are hundreds of miles away from the original reservation, such as in an urban area, but the BIA has to be involved in the process.
Ms. Braswell, whom I do not know personally, apparently did not go through the BIA process in the exchange of her indian lands in Naknek on the King Salmon Peninsula (in Alaska) that was registered under the Bristol Bay Native Association for the land in Southold (which is apparently a community on Long Island in New York) or in establishing the casino in question. I am not sure why the village of Kitoi is in the Koniag corporate regional area, but the land traded is under the Bristol Bay Native Association jurisdiction. This land exchange took place back in 1999 or 2001 without BIA involvment (voiding the transfer of indian nation rights to the new piece of land), and the casino in question opened in 2002. The Dancing Bear Casino was closed by federal agents on the day it opened, which resulted in a lawsuit that was eventually upheld in favor of the federal government and the State of New York in 2002. 
Today, a little over half the indian people do not live on their respective reservation, but have relocated to urban areas.

In the last half of the 20th Century, a government program that was little known at the time and is largely forgotten today created the largest movement of Indians in American history. The final scope and meaning of this massive social experiment is still impacting native peoples today.

World War II changed American society in general, and profoundly affected the lives of Native Americans. The U.S. was becoming much more urban:

  • In the 1940 Census, a little over half of all Americans (56.5 percent) were living in cities.
  • In 1940, only around 8 percent of Indians were living in cities.

The Relocation Program did provide some Indians better jobs, at the price of being cut off from tribal roots.

Government policy all through the 1700s and 1800s had been designed to make Indians into “farmers.” The lawmakers who wrote these policies were forgetting that the first European settlers would have starved without the benevolent help of native farmers. They also were forgetting that indigenous plant breeders gave the world corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, avocadoes, artichokes, chocolate, vanilla, tobacco and many other indigenous crops. In return, native tribes were given the worst land primarily in the semi-arid plains. Now, the 20th Century rush to the city was bypassing Indians, and reservation tribes suffered huge levels of unemployment and poverty.

In 1950, the average Native American on a reservation earned $950 per year. The average black person earned $2,000, and the average white person earned almost $4,000 — over four times more than Indians.

So, in 1952, the federal government initiated the Urban Indian Relocation Program. It was designed to entice reservation dwellers to seven major urban cities where the jobs supposedly were plentiful.

Relocation offices were set up in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dallas. BIA employees were supposed to orient new arrivals and manage financial and job training programs for them. Other BIA officials recruited prospective “relocatees” from many of the reservations around the country.

Relocatees were supposed to receive temporary housing, counseling and guidance in finding a job, permanent housing, community and social resources. The new migrants also were given money to tide them over on a sliding scale based on the number of children in the family. A man, his wife and four children got $80 a week for four weeks.

That’s what they were promised. Some found that the promises were not kept. Not every relocatee found a job, and those that did were generally at the lower end of the economic ladder.  Many were simply homesick so far away from their families and familiar landscapes. Some of the relocatees decided to return to their reservation. But  it’s estimated that as many as 750,000 Native Americans migrated to the cities between 1950 and 1980 and stayed. Some came through the Relocation Program. Others came on their own.

Those who stayed in urban areas eventually connected with other Indians, although they usually were members of another tribe. By now inter-tribal marriages created a new generation of Indians who’s identity was split between two or more tribes, or between indian and white cultures. In the 2000 Census, 79 percent of all Americans were living in cities. For American Indians, the urban population had risen to 64 percent — a huge increase over the 1940 urban population of 8 percent. Unemployment on some indian reservations has risen as high as 80%.

Successful Indian casinos mean jobs for tribal members, food and medical care for elders, decent housing for on-reservation tribal members, rehabilitation and conservation efforts on despoiled remaining tribal land, and buy-back of bigger land bases.

But not all indian casinos are a financial success. In fact, only a few indian casinos are showing huge profits, most are not. Those near large urban areas or tourist attractions are doing well. But most indian reservations are in the middle of nowhere, off the beaten road, in semi-arid desolate areas no one else wanted, with nothing interesting to see. It is pretty easy to figure out why tourists aren’t beating a path to their casino doors.

Today, the federal government often uses the casino issue as another obstacle to recognizing indian tribes seeking federal recognition. Many tribes have given up their right to operate gaming casinos in the future,  in the hope it will further their application in the recognition process, which often takes 20 years or more to reach a decision.


Alanskan Natives A to Z

Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971

The 13 Alaska Regional Corporations

Alaskan Native Tribal Councils

Alaskan Native Cultures

Did you know Aleuts were sent to internment camps during WWII?

Alaskan Native Tribal Governments Index

Alaska Native Communities by Region

Statistical Facts about Alaskan natives

The Seminoles established the precedent for the first indian casinos


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