Across Alaska's vast wilderness lie America's most traditional tribal societies - more than 220 Eskimo, Aleut, Athabascan, Tlingit, and Haida village communities spread over an enormous land mass encompassing one-sixth of the United States.
For centuries these tribes have struggled to hold fast to their traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering societies, bypassing the less fortunate experiences of the "lower 48" tribes that endured Indian wars and removal to distant reservations. Even so, they own or control but 5 percent of the state, mostly through native-controlled corporations.
Although their isolation has permitted them to survive in subsistence-based communities, Alaska's villages today face a new battle - a concerted attack by the State of Alaska and its congressional delegation to extinguish their inherent right to govern themselves. It is an attack against villages that are already grappling with severe poverty in a changing world.
Conditions in Alaska's tribal communities are desperate. In 1994, the distinguished Alaska Natives Commission found that most native villages were plagued with extraordinarily high rates of alcoholism and teenage suicide, inadequate education, poor health, and virtually no cash economy except for welfare payments. The commission made dozens of recommendations to improve village economies, judicial and law enforcement efforts, local self-determination, local education, and physical and behavioral health. The common thread in these recommendations was securing the right of village tribes to exercise local self-government - sovereignty - over their communities, just as other native American communities do in the contiguous 48 states.
The commission called on the federal government to remove the remaining clouds over tribal self-government in Alaska and to resist state efforts to weaken tribal sovereignty. These recommendations are not surprising. In a much noted study of native populations in Canada, America, and Mexico, Harvard economics professor Steven Kalt concluded that more than money or other governmental benefits, the single greatest factor leading to healthier and more successful native communities is their ability to exercise their sovereign right of self-government.
At long last this goal is at hand. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently rebuffed an 11-year-old challenge by the State of Alaska to the tribal sovereignty of the native village of Venetie, a small tribal community located deep in Alaska's interior.
With this victory - which rejected claims that a 1971 congressional native land settlement abolished Venetie's governmental power - the courts have given legal confirmation to the sovereignty that native villages have exercised for millennia.
But the battle is not over. In March 1997, the state legislature, which pleads poverty when asked to fund fresh water systems, had no trouble appropriating $1 million to overturn this ruling, if not in the US Supreme Court then in Congress. And Alaska's senators are leading the charge, vowing to legislatively repeal tribal self-government in Venetie if the Supreme Court - which will hear the case this fall - rules in Venetie's favor. The ultimate irony is that the Alaska Natives Commission that called for strengthening tribal governments included the current members of the Alaska congressional delegation.
Out of economic darkness
Tribal sovereignty, marshaled by effective tribal governmental institutions, can help bring native American communities in Alaska out of economic darkness, just as it has helped many in the contiguous states. It is not merely a matter of native pride, self-respect, and responsibility (though it is that too). It goes much further. It means the development of safe and healthy communities, tribal law enforcement officers, tribal justice systems, educational progress, health clinics, child and family assistance, and diverse business ventures.
Elsewhere, profits from tribal ventures have been used to reacquire ancestral lands, employ tribal members, build housing, and construct basic infrastructures - fresh water systems, more sewers, landfills, and roads. Tribes that are thriving in the United States are doing so precisely because their limited sovereignty allows them to govern their people according to custom and traditions, and in so doing create the conditions in which economic development may be possible.
Preserving tribal self-government is a fundamental right. It has proven indispensable in sustaining Indian communities elsewhere in the United States against tremendous odds - whether the Flathead of Montana, the Mescalero Apache of New Mexico, or the Puyallup of Washington. And it is equally essential to Alaska's native villages as they struggle to improve the health, education, and success of their people. Although in the last century the Supreme Court termed state governments the "deadliest enemies" of Indian tribes, today enlightened governors and legislators in Washington, North Dakota, and elsewhere seek common ground with their tribal communities to benefit all citizens.
Tribal self-government is a bipartisan issue. People like Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) of Colorado (the first native American to chair the Senate Indian Affairs Committee), Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona understand and support tribal self- government.
With their help, Congress, like the courts, should unhesitatingly reject calls from modern-day Indian fighters to repeal tribal rights in Alaska and, with it, the hope for a brighter future for distant voices at the northern edge of our continent.
* John E. Echohawk is the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo.