Modern Tribal Governments in Alaska

Long before contact with non-Native people, traditional systems of governing were well established in tribal communities and varied from place to place in Alaska. It was primarily under the influence of missionaries and teachers that Alaska Native villages were organized under village councils during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, most all 229 tribes in Alaska have tribal councils as their governing bodies. The sizes of the councils range from 5 to 9 members, with 7 being the most common. There a variety of names for these councils including ‘Native council,’ ‘tribal council,’ ‘IRA council,’ ‘village council,’ and ‘traditional council.’ All of these refer to the governing body of a tribe. Most all tribes in Alaska have adopted constitutions, either under the Indian Reorganization Act, or simply under their own tribal authority to organize their government. The constitutions are voted on by the adult tribal members and generally lay out the structure for the tribal government, although many do not. Those tribes that do not describe the structure of the government in their constitutions may have tribal codes or ordinances that do so. 


Most all tribes in Alaska have tribal codes or ordinances further describing the structure of their government, and providing procedural guidelines for the tribal government such as elections, membership and enrollment, and tribal court structures and procedures. The codes are typically voted on by the councils, rather than by all the adult tribal members. 

Tribal governments offer a wide variety of services to their tribal members and residents of the villages including health care, social services, housing, utilities, educational assistance, employment, environmental safeguards, and judicial services. These services may be delivered directly through the tribal government or through non-profit Native owned and operated organizations. The services are provided through 638 contracts and compacts from the Department of Interior and Indian Health Services, and through other grants and contracts with various other state and federal agencies. In communities where there is no city or borough government, the tribal governments tend to provide more governmental services than in those communities where cities and borough governments exist. 

There is a wide variety of land ownership patterns in Alaska villages, and most tribal governments in Alaska are land managers. Even though the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) placed the land settlement with the various village and regional for-profit Native corporations, most tribes in Alaska own land. Tribes have acquired land in a variety of ways including by purchase, gifts, through the Alaska Native townsite program, and by transferring land from corporations and cities to tribes. Some tribes own small parcels such as the land under their tribal offices or within the Native townsites, and some tribes own huge amounts of land that has been transferred from the village corporations. This land is owned in fee simple status meaning that the tribe’s name is on the deed, and it is managed by the tribal councils. Tribally owned fee simple land in Alaska is not considered Indian country for jurisdictional purposes and the Secretary of Interior will not take any land in Alaska into ‘trust’ at this time to create Indian country. 

Over half of the 229 tribes in Alaska are developing or have active tribal courts. The types of cases that Alaska tribal courts address include child custody, adoptions and guardianships, child protection, child support enforcement, domestic violence, probate, alcohol violations, animal control, environmental regulation, juvenile delinquency, juvenile status offences, cultural protection, internal governmental disputes, property damage, property disputes, trespass, misdemeanor offences, and fish and game/marine mammal protection. 

Alaska tribal courts are organized under a range of structures, but most use a panel of judges rather than a single judge to hear cases. The tribal council may serve as the court, or a pool of judges created that may include some tribal council members. There may be a body entirely separated from the council established as the tribal court. The judges tend to be elders, council members, and tribal members who are respected and well-suited to the job, but not attorneys. Some tribes use the circle style sentencing format, which is an increasing trend particularly for juvenile delinquency and status offence cases. 

Although tribal courts have a wide range of independence in terms of structures and procedures, they are all required to follow the due process guidance of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which is similar to the United States Bill of Rights. The fundamental elements of due process are notification of hearings, and an opportunity to be heard in front of a fair and impartial tribunal. The tribes are not required to provide due process in the same image as do the state or federal courts. Many of the provisions of the Indian Civil Rights Act apply to courts practicing criminal jurisdiction in cases where incarceration is a possibility. While all tribes in Alaska are interested in exercising their judicial capacity to protect the health and well-being of their tribal members, very few are interested in incarcerating them. Alaska tribes are most interested in protecting people and healing through treatment programs and cultural activities, and mending relationships.