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  • Of Subjection and SovereigntyAlaska Native Corporations and Tribal Governments in the Twenty-First Century
  • Thomas Michael Swensen (bio)

On October 27, 2003, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens said to a public audience, “Tribal sovereignty is not the answer to the problems Alaska Natives face.” Through a prerecorded video, Stevens addressed his trepidations about tribal politics to a congregation of thousands at the Alaska Federation of Natives’ annual meeting in Fairbanks. He reasoned against sovereignty in tribal form because he felt that tribes brought “authority to some, power to others, and legal fees to advocates that bring incessant litigation.”1 In his line of argumentation, the Native corporate structure—a system he helped appoint throughout the state as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971—was a more practical apparatus for employing Alaska Native interests.

For Stevens, tribal governments interfered with the state’s relationship with Native Alaska because federal law holds strict guidelines for the conduct between tribes and states. Unlike Native corporations, tribes possess the ability to govern themselves, in most cases, with a high degree of autonomy from the power of the states. As the video continued, Stevens warned the audience that tribal sovereignty brings federal intervention in Native land rights, saying “full sovereignty is only possible by turning your lands back to the federal government to hold in trust for you.” He advised the conference attendees that with tribal forms of sovereignty, Alaska Natives “could make no decisions about [their] land without Uncle Sam’s permission.”2 If Stevens could eliminate funding for the tribal governments, he could lessen their political [End Page 100] efficiency in the state. In his view, the corporations, which had the ability to develop their lands like any U.S. corporation, were superior to tribal governments for the purpose of conducting Alaska Native political and economic interests.

The quasi-sovereign Native corporations as products of the forty-four-year-old claims settlement agreement formed the means by which Alaska Native people, by and large, would be identifiable—not as tribal members, but as corporate shareholders—to the federal government and the state of Alaska. The hundreds of tribal governments, on the other hand, were newer entities in the state, evolving from a federal pronouncement in 1994. Senator Stevens’s call to steer funds away from tribal governments threatened the relationship between the federal government and tribal governments, thereby affronting the basic notion of tribal sovereignty.

This article focuses on Alaska tribal governments and Native corporations as strategic channels of Indigenous sovereignty that organize Native Alaska for dissimilar purposes. Senator Stevens’s agenda of stripping federal funds from tribes serves as an entry point into tracing the histories of tribes and the Native corporations in the state of Alaska. This history illustrates why each structure individually contributes to the variegated political system that Stevens sought to end. Moreover, the article argues that while the corporations and the tribes are compulsory legal constructions that regulate Indigenous activities, they prove useful to Native Alaska’s political endeavors within the national and state political system. Alaska Native Indigenous sovereignty functions through both, even though each originated in an effort to strictly regulate Native political activity.

The Native corporation and the tribe embody federally crafted tools, or technologies, that compel Alaska Natives into assuming behaviors that influence their interactions amongst themselves and with the state and federal governments. Once employed by the corporation or the tribe, this technique of “subjection” moves beyond mere external pressures on individuals and communities to form the basis for a “subject’s self-identity,” thereby guiding how one will think of one’s self and act in the world.3 In the case of Alaska, Natives could be empowered by the government to conduct their affairs with the federal and state governments through the corporations and tribes. By doing so, however, Native communities would have to reproduce themselves in forms that were legible to the regulating bodies that created the corporation and the tribe. From the moment of adoption, political pursuits and legal claims would have to fit within the predetermined rules set forth in both structures.

Prior to embracing the corporations and tribal governments in political life, however...


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