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KNBA News - Gov. Bill Walker meets with tribes; Travel restraints lifted between Alaska, Chukotka

Aug 11, 2015

Sovereignty over tribal lands the subject of Gov. Walker meetings in rural Alaska

In 2006 tribes sued the federal government over the right to transfer tribal lands into federal ownership, or trust status, which would give tribes wider control over laws and management of lands, while restricting the power of the state. Trust status also has tax implications. The state of Alaska argued Alaskan tribal rights to apply to put land into trust were extinguished by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

In 2013, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. agreed with the tribes that excluding Alaska tribes from applying for trust status was illegal and discriminatory.

Now Gov. Bill Walker faces an August24th deadline on whether the state will continue to appeal the case, which he inherited from former Gov. Sean Parnell. Walker is facing pressure from tribes to drop the lawsuit. He said Monday the purpose of a recent five-village trip was to listen to and build relationships with tribes.

“I wasn’t trying to sell a deal or make a deal, or get anyone to do anything different,” says Walker. “I just wanted to understand and hear from them about some of their issues in their village and tribal associations.”

Last week Walker toured five communities to talk with the plaintiffs in Akiachak and Tuluksak in Western Alaska, Chalkyitsik in the Interior, Barrow on the North Slope, and Haines, in Southeast. Walker says he heard a common thread -- tribes wanted to make sure land is available for future generations.

“The theme I would take from across the state is they were looking at it more from a preservation standpoint,” said Walker. “They’re trying to hold on to what they had, recognizing that they had before, and that they had a whole lot more previously.”

Walker says land status is one of an array of issues related to tribal sovereignty that his administration is considering.

“We’re looking at how we can transfer jurisdiction over to tribes,” said Walker. “I think I would look, our vision is much broader than land into trust.”

Walker has not yet laid out his plans for the lawsuit, saying his legal team is still reviewing information.

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Bering Strait travel restraints lifted

By Emily Russell, KNOM-Nome

Visa-free travel for Alaska Natives with ties across the Bering Strait has been reinstated after being banned for over three years. 

The Bering Straits Regional Commission says travel restrictions for Alaska Natives to Chukotka have been lifted—leaving many with relatives on the Russian side of the strait feeling relieved.

Since time immemorial, Natives on both sides of the Bering Strait have traveled freely between what is now Alaska and Chukotka. Political egos and ensuing conflicts after World War II put a stop to this fluid exchange of people and goods.

The director of the FBI at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, ordered the border closed in 1948, urging that, “U.S. national security interests should outweigh the interests of local Eskimos.” John Waghiyi of Savoonga remembers the decades-long border closure.

“Sixty years of closure, the Cold War was not good for us, and then to make it difficult for our people several years ago, you know it’s tough. We need to be able to go back and forth. It’s our god-given right,” said Waghiyi.

Relations eventually thawed and the border was reopened in 1989. That same year, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed an agreement reinstating visa-free travel for eligible Natives on both sides of the strait.

That 1989 agreement was curtailed three years ago when all travelers, including Alaska Natives with ties to Chukotka, were required to apply for and purchase a visa to travel across the strait.

Waghiyi is frustrated that international disputes infringe on their right to travel.

“I don’t think that people that have ties to Alaska or Chukotka need to be used as pawns," said Waghiyi.

Now Vera Metcalf with the Bering Straits Regional Commission says the agreement was updated just last month.

“Qualified Native Alaskans can travel visa free under this agreement that’s called the Bering Straits Agreement and the visits in Chukotka are limited to 90 days as defined in the agreement,” said Metcalf.

Just why the agreement was reinstated is unclear. Julia Straker, a spokesperson for the State Department, says “due to administrative issues U.S. participants had not been able to travel under the agreement during the past three years.” Without revealing any details, Straker and Metcalf both confirm those issues have now been resolved.

With visa-free travel reinstated, Waghiyi looks forward to visiting family across the strait and hosting more cultural exchanges between Natives from Alaska and Chukotka in the years to come.