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.
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.