The Calista Corporation is spearheading an effort to form a federally-recognized regional tribal government in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The regional native corporation says that tribes have requested the corporation’s support in this endeavor.
Other Alaska Native groups have already formed federally-recognized regional tribal governments, such as the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA). The regional tribal government has entered into agreements with 20 tribal governments in Southeast Alaska. CCTHITA can apply for federal funds, and establish government-to-government relationships with the U.S. Government.
Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Akiak Native Community, said that tribes began working to form a regional tribal government about 40 years ago, but the endeavor has gained momentum in the past decade. In 2013, tribes passed a resolution at the annual Association of Village Council Presidents convention to form one. Five years later, about 10 Y-K Delta tribes came together to form a government called the Provisional Nunavut Alaska Government, with Williams Sr. as President. The government meets in Bethel annually, but it’s expensive to send someone to Bethel and so the number of tribes participating is small, Williams Sr. said.
“Because many of the people don't have any travel capacity to come into Bethel and to participate in all of these meetings because of the travel costs that are associated with that,” Williams Sr. said.
In a letter sent to tribes in February, the Calista Corporation said that it would pay for 56 tribal delegates to come to Anchorage and vote on forming a regional government. Williams Sr. is on board.
“That's why we are very excited in, in developing that democracy that we have been lacking here in the region for a long time, and it's exciting,” Williams said.
That vote was supposed to happen in May, but has been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. In that same letter, Calista said that it has identified a source of possible funding: the proposed Donlin Gold mine, which could be one of the biggest in the world, if completed. Calista owns the mineral rights to the mine, and the letter said that the mine could bring in $10 million per year for the government.
Calista spokesperson Thom Leonard said that Donlin Gold could potentially make payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT. That’s basically a federal tax to local governments. Williams Sr. said that would be similar to the tax structure with the Red Dog Mine in the Northwest Arctic Borough.
“We've seen what happened in Northwest Arctic and NANA region when the Red Dog mine came and they organized Northwest Arctic Borough, and that they organized, you know, way to to capture that revenue that may be coming to them,” Williams Sr. said.
With the money, Williams Sr. said that the proposed government could create a tribal court system, jobs, and a public safety program to fill the gaps in rural law enforcement. Calista said that tribes have requested the corporation’s support in this endeavor, and Calista will respect the tribes’ right to self-determination.
According to Leonard, a quarter of the 56 tribes in the region have said that they’ll vote on whether or not to form the regional government.