Sen. Begich Speaks Out on Indian & Alaska Native Concerns

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) has served in the Senate since January 2009.  During his time in office he has become an increasingly forceful advocate on  Alaska Native and American Indian issues, playing a major role in getting the  Obama administration to promise this month that it will reimburse full contract  support costs to tribes in both 2014 and 2015 after a major debacle last year  where the White House tried to cap reimbursements. He has also notably held up  President Barack Obama’s re-nomination of Yvette Roubideaux as the director of  the Indian Health Service, heeding tribal questions about her lacking  consultation and leadership decisions, and he has protected Alaska Native  Corporations, while making strong commitments to tribes in the lower 48 states  about defending their sovereign interests as well.In a candid interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Begich  shares how he is now turning his sights on achieving a 100 percent clean  Carcieri fix to the controversial 2009 Supreme Court decision that negatively  impacts tribal trust lands, fixing the broken justice system for Alaska Natives,  and he vows not to be partisan in considering the nomination of Cherokee Nation  citizen Keith Harper to become a U.N. human rights ambassador.

You joined the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs just over a year  ago, and we are now in the midst of a leadership shuffle where Sen. Jon Tester  (D-Montana) recently took over the gavel from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) What  do you make of this transition?

Being on the Indian Affairs Committee is a huge opportunity and having two of  us on there from the same state adds to our ability to get some things done for  Alaska Natives. I think Maria Cantwell has done a great job. I think Jon Tester  is a very strong proponent of Indian country and really understands the issues.  I’ve brought him up to Alaska twice already. He has a very good and strong  understanding of Alaska, which is a huge plus from my perspective. I have heard  that he wants to have a hearing on our Safe Families and Villages Act, which is  very important. This legislation attempts to fix the Alaska Native exclusion  from the Violence Against Women Act [VAWA] reauthorization [of 2013]. Jon Tester  has already identified this as a priority, so we’re very excited about that.

Regarding the Safe Families and Villages Act, many tribal advocates  are concerned that your legislation doesn’t go as far for Alaska Natives as the  VAWA reauthorization goes in giving enhanced jurisdiction to tribes over  non-Indian domestic violence offenders in the lower 48 states.

I 100 percent agree with that. As a matter of fact, my original legislation  had that language, but in order to get a co-sponsor, we had to soften the  language. My hope is when we have the hearing that the tribes will be able to  lay on the table what they want to see improved on this. I will be the first to  make the amendments necessary to make the bill stronger or similar to what I  offered last year. Honestly, though, we couldn’t get the state of Alaska to  agree with my original legislation. The state is objecting to our tribes having  the ability to deal with criminal justice in their communities. The current  governor, the lieutenant governor, and the former attorney general – oddly  enough, two of those guys are running against me – have no interest. We had to  soften it for the state to at least be somewhat neutral at this point, but also  to get a Republican co-sponsor. We are anxious to include tribal ideas within  the committee substitute legislation after the first hearing. The problem with  this place is sometimes you have to soften it in order to get the hearing, and  now that we’re going to get the hearing, we can strengthen it. Honestly, at the  end of the day, I don’t care what the state of Alaska says.

So, you’re willing to go up against your state there. Do you think  your co-sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), is willing to go there with  you?I hope so. She’s on the bill now, and she’s heard from a lot of tribes about  the importance of this legislation and the positive impact it could have in  solving the dynamics that have put Alaska Natives at a disadvantage when it  comes to fighting crime, especially domestic violence, sexual assault, and  substance abuse. I am hopeful, and I believe that tribal testimony that will be  part of the hearing will be strong, convincing and show that sometimes you have  to say no to the state in order to get better justice for people of the  state.

Would anything have to happen regarding state or federal law in terms  of Alaska Native land recognition for Alaska Native communities to receive  enhanced jurisdiction?

No. The way we designed the original legislation was to recognize the tribes  under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. My dad was the author of that.  The way we crafted it was to give flexibility. We need tribes to take the lead  in combatting crimes in their communities, and we think they have the best  solutions and know-how on the ground. The way we had my original bill was to  ensure that they had as much autonomy and power to do this as possible.

Alaska Native crime rates are really horrific, so how can state  officials be arguing that the status quo is acceptable?

Yes, the statistics are staggering. I think in the state there are some  people with political philosophies and views that are really dated. They believe  the minute tribes have the ability to fix their criminal justice systems that  all the sky is going to fall. I think they are just mistaken. To me, it shows a  lack of understanding of the need that is clearly apparent in our villages.

You recently heard testimony focused on a Tribal Law and Order  Commission report that went into a lot of depth on a lot of Alaska Native  justice problems. Do you think there will be real action as a result of the  report?

I really do. The hearing happened because I requested that the chair hold a  hearing to get Alaska’s perspective and to get the perspective of tribes in the  rest of the nation. On one hand, part of me is happy to see so much focus on  Alaska Natives in the report. On the other hand, I’m not happy because the  report really shows how many problems we have to address. It’s good to know  that, but it’s also a sad commentary on what’s been going on for the past  several decades. We had that hearing to decide what should happen next. As an  appropriator – I sit on the Appropriations Committee – you can be rest assured  that I will use that position to push these issues to put some real meat behind  them.

You’ve gotten some notice as an appropriator of late on the tribal  contract support costs issue and the administration’s controversial attempt to  cap funding of these payments to tribes last year.Yes [laughs], there was an article in your publication last year with a  headline saying something like ‘Begich Says Administration Cheats Indians.’ I  thought, ‘Holy mackerel!’ I tell you something, your article got the White House  to call over to me, and I said the article summarized the situation pretty well.  And, as an appropriator, I said I was sick and tired of seeing cap proposals and  gimmicks that didn’t resolve the issue. We now have promises from the  administration to fully fund tribal contract support costs for 2014 and 2015.  It’s a major victory.

RELATED: Sen. Begich Urges Obama’s Attention on Plan to Cheat Tribal  Health Costs

Why do you think the administration developed that controversial cap  plan in the first place?

I think the Office of Management and Budget lacked understanding here, and I  think Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, the director of the Indian Health Service, was not  a strong advocate. The person in that position should be someone who fights  tooth and nail for the needs of Indian country. She might have been doing that  behind the scenes, but we need her out front.

Dr. Roubideaux’s re-nomination is still pending before the Senate  Committee on Indian Affairs. What’s going to happen there?

I will continue to push against moving her forward because I want to see some  more results here. I want these long-standing obligations on contract support  cost payments that are owed to tribes settled. They are starting to pick off a  few, but at the rate they go, it could take 100 years. I want to see some  acceleration on those settlements. I’m feeling like they may announce something  soon. And if they do, I will probably tell the new chair that I don’t have a  problem with moving Dr. Roubideaux forward. But I’m not interested in moving her  forward until I see some strong results. Then I will feel better that there is a  real advocate in that position.

Have you been the only committee member holding her up?

There are some others, but I can tell you, her re-appointment was going to  move rather quickly some time ago, but I went up to the chair and said I had no  interest in moving her. It’s nothing about her as a person; I just want some  action.

Speaking of nominations, Cherokee Nation citizen Keith Harper has  been nominated to become a U.N. human rights ambassador. He has received strong  support from some tribes and organizations, but there have also been several  Native American detractors who feel he has some problems in terms of his  character and commitments. Where do you stand on his nomination?I have been reviewing information about him, and I understand that there is  some controversy about him. I think someone who has worked in the area of Native  rights is a great idea to work in that position. Saying that, I will be asking  pretty hard questions of this individual regarding his relationships with the  people on the ground. I want to know how he will address those concerns about  his record.

Are you supportive of a 100 percent clean Carcieri fix to  the controversial 2009 Supreme Court decision that limited the Department of the  Interior’s ability to take lands into trust for tribes recognized after  1934?

Yes—no Alaska carve out. I put that on the record at Indian Affairs a few  months ago. I just had a conversation with the White House on this. We made it  very clear: No Alaska carve out. That was apparently creating a problem for  settlement of the issue in the Senate.

What about a California tribal carve out? Sen. Dianne Feinstein  (D-Calif.) has been really pushing the idea that there needs to be a limit of  off-reservation gaming for at least some California tribes in any potential  Carcieri fix that she could support.

This is not about gaming, even though I think that is what Sen. Feinstein  wants to make it about. This is about issues of land, ownership and trust.  People who want to make this about gaming are missing the issue.

Can you vow that you will always support a 100 percent clean  Carcieri fix with no carve outs that recognize tribes differently from  each other?

Yes, you have to. Because otherwise you start creating some imbalances in  sovereignty. You have to be very careful. At the end of the day, though, we are  making sausage here, so sometimes one of the ingredients added is not always  what you like, but if you can get to a completion, then it is worth it. I will  do my best to keep it clean.

You mentioned the White House meeting about Carcieri recently, and until now, the administration’s position, we have heard, has been  in favor of a clean fix that does not treat any tribes differently. Are they  wavering on a clean fix?

No, what they are hearing are rumors that Alaska wants something special. So  they came to us and asked what the deal was. This was our opportunity to make  the point clear that I do not believe an Alaska carve out is necessary. I think  the White House is making sure any loose ends are double-checked and triple  checked.

Sen. Murkowski has been hammering a recent decision by Secretary  Sally Jewell against the development of a road for Alaska Native residents in  the King Cove region. Where do you stand here?We have been fighting together on this. I have introduced legislation that  says these residents need the road for medical emergency purposes. We are  trading thousands of acres of land in exchange for a few hundred. It is a very  fair arrangement. I have asked for my legislation to move forward. Rep. Don  Young (R-Alaska) has also introduced legislation on the House side. On top of  that, we are trying to enhance the role of the Coast Guard to be able to address  medical emergencies in the region.

Sen. Murkowski has wanted to hold up some Interior nominees to try to  draw attention to the King Cove issue. Do you think that’s a good  idea?

There are some nominees that I will side with her on. I am not afraid to do  that. Holding up people is great if you can get a result.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) made a lot of headlines a few  years back for going after Alaska Native Corporations for some of their business  practices. Where is that at now?

Obviously, I didn’t like what she was doing. She heard from me more than once  in a very aggressive way. I showed up at her hearings. And I got to have my  voice at the table. Since that time, she and I have continued to have  discussions. She still has issues, but she has been a lot quieter about this  issue. I think it’s because she has more information, and I think some of the  problems she raised have been corrected.

The Alaska Native vote—is it going to matter a lot in your election  this fall?

It will. We need a higher turnout among Alaska Natives. We need much more of  them to vote. I have met with a couple of groups recently where there were large  amounts of Alaska Native leaders, and I told them, ‘I am 100 percent supportive,  but you have to mobilize.’ The power that they have is enormous if they exercise  it. They need to turn the vote out. The people I am running against have very  little interest in Alaska Native issues. I need more friends, more allies to  change the deck. You have to kick the people out who are not representing your  needs and concerns. The moment is now. It’s a question of whether you will seize  it, or watch it go by and wonder what happened.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.