January 27, 2023

The House of Representatives voted almost unanimously last Friday to maintain the existence of the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs. The committee was formed in 2019 under former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and the bipartisan coalition to focus on and highlight issues specific to Alaskan tribes and Native Americans.

Because special committees must be renewed every legislative session, the continued existence of the tribal committee — along with the House Ways and Means Committee established under former House Speaker Louise Stutes — was not guaranteed, especially with the Republican majority seeking obliteration for the past six years the bipartisan coalition.

Instead, the only person who wanted to eliminate the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs was none other than Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman, who complained that the committee was not needed and was unfairly excluding some people. (Eastman also has an established history of racism against Alaska Natives.)

“There were tribal issues that were raised in almost every single committee of this body and I think that’s the way it should be. All matters relating to Alaskan tribes and Native Americans should be open to discussion in all of our committees,” he said. “Likewise, I don’t think there should be any committee where some Alaskan doesn’t feel invited and interested to participate and so on.”

Eastman also has a long history of making racist remarks against Alaska Natives, and was eventually reprimanded for comments that suggested some women — particularly those living in rural Alaska — were lucky to get pregnant so they could take Medicaid-funded trips could receive for abortions.

Edgmon defended the committee and found support from several members of the new Republican majority.

“I can tell you that about four years later, understanding across the Legislature of what tribe means to Alaska, what tribal matters mean, has grown exponentially,” he said. “Alaska tribes are here to stay. They are very valuable members of Alaska as a whole.”

Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican who is frequently teased with the Eastman-esque brush, was particularly adamant that the committee should continue. As a member of the first session that was held, Vance said she learned a lot about the committee and how it opened her eyes to underreported issues like missing, murdered Indigenous women.

“I’m telling you, I spent most of my time with tears streaming down my face,” she said. “One of the conversations I had yesterday is this month, four Alaskan Native women have disappeared, but who’s talking about it? I learned about these issues from the Tribal Affairs Committee. This committee is very valuable, it talks about things that don’t get much talked about in the media, that don’t get talked about in my district. It’s not that common across the state of Alaska, but it’s very important and affects every one of us.”

Last year, the Alaskan legislature voted to officially recognize tribes.

The vote to retain the committee was 36-1.

Why it matters: It’s entirely possible that this outcome was part of the negotiations for the majority of the House of Representatives, but I’m inclined to think that the committee’s past two sessions have proven its purpose and then some. It is also important to note that the creation of the committee – unlike the creation of the Ways and Means Committee – was not controversial. Then as now, Eastman was the only opposition. However, it is worth noting that the membership of both Special Committees has shrunk to just four for the Tribal Affairs Committee and three for Ways and Means.

Follow the thread: Friday’s house floor session.

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