Assembly votes unanimously to open formal dialogue with Native Village of Eklutna

Wednesday, December 18, 2019 - 17:17

A sometimes-emotional debate about formalizing relations between the Municipality of Anchorage and the Native Village of Eklutna ended with a vote by the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday to spend the next year exploring ways to bring the two groups closer together.

The debate centered around whether or not to delay the resolution, which Assemblymember Crystal Kennedy of Eagle River said could have “unintended consequences.”

Kennedy said she was not against having a conversation with the tribal government, but initially had concerns about a lack of public input.

“We should probably have a bigger conversation and we don’t need a document like this to do that,” she said.

The resolution drew a large crowd of people to the meeting after an Anchorage bingo hall owner placed ads in the Anchorage Daily News stating the resolution would bolster the Native Village of Eklutna in its lawsuit with the federal government seeking to open a charitable gaming establishment on an 8-acre Native allotment located near the intersection of the Alaska Railroad tracks and Birchwood Spur Road in Chugiak.

But Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar took issue with the assertion that the resolution and casino lawsuit are connected, and said many of the emails he received on the issue “verge on an ideology I don’t want to give much more credence to.” Dunbar said the newspaper ad was deliberately misleading about the resolution’s intent.

“The repeated attempt to connect this to the casino and gaming is a lie,” he said.

Assemblyman Christopher Constant called the campaign to link the resolution with the tribe’s ongoing lawsuit “a hysteria based on falsehood.”

During the debate, Kennedy called Anchorage attorney Don Mitchell to testify about the issue. Mitchell — a former vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives — said the municipality has no need to draft a resolution to speak with the tribal government and questioned the timing of the measure.

“You’ve gone 56 years without the need of this kind of resolution, why has it happened now?” said Mitchell, referencing the tribal government’s reorganization in the early 1960s.

Mitchell argued certain language in the resolution — such as a passage saying “the Native Village of Eklutna is federally recognized as a sovereign Tribe” — could have unforseen legal ramifications, and took issue with Constant’s claim that those opposing the resolution weren’t doing so in good faith.

“You can understand why people might believe in good faith that the wherases in this resolution are linked to a strategy by attorneys representing the Native Village of Eklutna in their lawsuit,” he said.

But tribal President Aaron Leggett said the resolution simply allows the tribal government and municipality to open a formal dialogue and is separate from the ongoing effort to build a casino on the 8-acre allotment. He called the effort to link the two issues “frankly abhorrent.”

He also said Mitchell’s statement that the tribe is not federally recognized is untrue and pointed out the government recently stipulated to that point in a brief filed in federal court.

“They are not refuting we are a federally recognized tribe,” he said.

Separate from Eklutna Inc. — the Native corporation which is Anchorage’s largest private landholder — the Native Village of Eklutna represnts the tribe and tribal government for the village located near the Glenn Highway at the northern end of the municipality. According to the tribe, it’s the only continuiously inhabited original Dena’ina village within the municipality. The tribal goverment operates a health clinic in the village and has a seven-member tribal council.

Leggett was elected council president in 2018 after garnering 55 of 92 votes cast in the tribal election.

Cook Inlet Region Inc. estimated in 2014 there were about 70 people living in the village. According to the tribe, as of last year there were 238 full tribal members over age 18. About 60 percent of tribal members live in the Anchorage area, said tribal vice president Maria Coleman.

Municipal attorney Rebecca Windt Pearson said Tuesday’s resolution was carefully vetted by municipal lawyers and she has no concerns about its potential future legal impacts on the municipality. She also told the Assembly that the federal case only pertains to the “very narrow” question of whether Eklutna’s Native allotment can be considered Indian land for the purposes of charitable gaming.

“We do believe everything in here is legally accurate and does not create any kind of legal risk to the municipality,” she said.

Kennedy said the discussion eased her concerns and that she’s in support of opening talks with the tribal government.

“As we move forward those conversations are very important, I’m looking forward to them,” she said. “I think they’re way overdue.”

Constant said he was moved to tears by the debate in “both sadness and hope’” — the former, he said, due to what he characterized as a misinformation campaign, the latter because of the long-overdue dialogue he sees on the horizon.

“I sure hope you can see through all the noise to the facts,” he told his colleagues before the final vote. “And the facts are we have an opportunity to do something great, which is move forward a conversation in our community that’s been waiting to happen.”

The resolution passed 11-0.

The assembly will now spend the next year “engaging in dialogue and deliberations toward a more formal relationship between the two governments,” according to the resolution, which can be read in its entirety here.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274.

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