NULATO TRIBAL COUNCIL
SELF DETERMINATION AND SELF GOVERNANCE
Nulato has a population of 340 residents of whom 96.9% are Koyukon Athabascan Indians. The potential work force consists of 200 individuals and 58% to 78% of this workforce is perpetually unemployed. Government agencies and the education system provide almost all the permanent employment for 44 residents which mean that 156 residents are looking for work at any given time. Nulato does not have any self-sustaining and viable economic enterprise. The major recurring health problems are alcohol/physical abuse and suicidal tendencies. While the local school has a 98% high school graduation rate, 60% of those graduates will not pursue post-secondary studies. Of the 90 families in Nulato, 21% of them are dependent on public assistance for their survival.
When Congress recognized Nulato as a sovereign tribe in 1993, this revived the Tribal Council’s spirit and was the crucial point from which the Nulato Tribe embarked on the road towards self-governance. A Tribal Administrator was hired by the Tribal Council in late 1993 with direct instructions to establish a tribal office, enhance the tribal government, and secure a financial base to provide employment for local tribal members.
The Administrator’s first objective was to learn the history of Indian Self-Determination and Self-Governance and not only learn this history but, also, to understand the concepts. Any forward progress towards self-governance required this foundation to build on or progress could be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Over the next several years, the Tribal Council operated selected federal programs for its Tribal members and gradually increased its employee base to four members. However, and this is an important distinction, the Tribal Council did not receive the funding directly and did not administer the funding. Therefore, the Tribal Council had no control over the amounts of money allocated to the Council nor did it need to be financially responsible for those funds.
The Tribal Council recognized that to achieve professionalism, expertise, and stability, it must accept the responsibilities to manage, govern, direct, administrate, and lead the tribal government. Commitment to these endeavors must be total and unwavering. A two-year schedule of training sessions was programmed to educate both council members and staff in all aspects of tribal government; computer technology, bookkeeping, accounting, recordkeeping, financial management, property management, personnel relations and management, supervisory responsibilities, BIA programs and rules and regulations, and tribal responsibilities and obligations.
By FY 1997, the Nulato Tribal Council applied for the P.L. 93-638 Contract under Title I, Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and subsequent amendments. The tribal staff was now increased to seven employees. At the same time, contract applications were submitted for the Housing Improvement Program, Roads Maintenance, and the Native American Housing Assistance Self Determination Act. Through these P.L. 93-638 Contracts which provided employment to local tribal members in administration and management, the contracts also provided seasonal employment on Indian housing projects and repair and maintenance on IRR roads.
Through its own determination and initiative, the Tribal Council believed that it could begin addressing the chronically unemployed tribal members. With an unemployment rate of 75%, the Tribal Council cannot put every tribal member to work, but by increasing its annual revenues, it can continue to provide more meaningful employment for tribal members other than seasonal employment.
In its determination to achieve a true government-to-government relationship with the federal government while attending to the social, economic, education, and welfare needs of its Tribal members, the Tribal Council executed a Self Governance Compact with the Department of Interior on October 1, 2001. The Nulato Tribal Council may well be the only small Alaskan Tribe to achieve this Compact status through a systematic evolutionary process towards a government-to-government state from a completely dependent status. The tribal staff now has nine full-time permanent employees to manage and administer compact funding plus three full-time permanent employees from other sources of funding.
The Nulato Tribal Council has become one of 85 tribal compactors with the federal government, since the first seven tribal compactors executed annual funding agreements in 1991. This is quite an achievement in itself considering that it was not until 1993 that the Nulato Tribe was recognized and that out of a potential 556 compacting Tribes nationwide, the Nulato Tribe is part of a small number (15%) of self-governance tribes with annual funding agreements.
The preceding history of Nulato’s evolution to compacting does not accurately describe the human emotions and drama experienced by the Tribal Council as it progressed forward. The Tribal Council had to accept unfamiliar, and sometimes, foreign concepts of operating and managing a business. That the funds for the tribal business are federal monies increased the burdens of compliance requirements and accountability not experienced in private businesses. All these standards of doing business had to be learned and applied on a daily basis for the Nulato Tribal Council to succeed.
The inhabitants of Nulato are 50 years (two generations) from a livelihood that depended on fishing, hunting, trapping, and living off the land. The education of children was beginning to be accepted as the future’s foundation but education was not a priority concern to the people as much as preparing children for living off the land. Therefore, this way of life that depended on the seasons moved at a slower pace than life in the cities or the rest of the country. This environment does not stress habitual patterns for sleeping, eating, schedules and most importantly, employment. People tend to sleep when they want, accomplish things when daylight allows, and were not tied down to schedules.
Unfortunately, while the Nulato people had to be resourceful, diligent, and industrious to survive a subsistence way of life, alcohol was and is the people’s scourge that affected most of the Koyukon Indians both young and old. The alcohol cycle that passes from generation to generation continues today and it is this scourge that the Tribal Council is constantly challenged with. Tribal members have had to learn total abstinence or moderate use of alcohol if they desired to be employed by the tribal government and remain employed.
For tribal administration, this has been far from easy to retain employees as years of terminating employees because of constant tardiness and absenteeism due to alcohol abuse has been factual. It was previously mentioned that 60% of the high school graduates will not pursue post-secondary education. Among the 40% that do, these are tribal members who return to the village with the necessary skills to administer, manage, and account for federal monies. These are the people who want to live in the village, provide for their families, and be assured of a stable source of income to do this. These employees have had to learn that year-round employment is the alternative to a way of life no longer acceptable – hunting, fishing, and trapping.
The twelve tribal employees with permanent full-time status have a cumulative dependency of 48 family members. Every one of these employees has a background of alcohol abuse. Some have renounced alcohol, some have learned moderation, and some still have periods of binge drinking. None are excluded from the disease of alcoholism. The Tribal Council is proud to declare that Nulato tribal operations are noteworthy and exemplary to other Alaskan tribes because of employee retention and low employee turnover. In order to be responsible and accountable for an annual revenue of well over one million dollars, the tribal staff must be consistent and reliable.
The tribal employees are the community’s representatives of commitment, responsibility, and continuity in overcoming obstacles. Tribal children can aspire to achieve economic benefits, independency, and a way of life, uncontrolled by alcohol, as the tribal employees exemplify. The tribal employees have demonstrated and proven to state agencies and federal bureaucracies that they can provide, administer, and manage federal programs for their tribal members.
The audit for FY 2002 reveals that the Nulato Tribal Council administered $424,259.00 for payroll, taxes and benefits. Two housing units were constructed for low-income tribal members. Tribal members in post-secondary pursuits received $30,125.00 for scholarships and awards. The Tribal Council provided $34, 905.00 for alcohol/drug free activities. Tribal members benefited from $49,000.00 of health care that otherwise would not be obtainable using personal resources. The care and custody of tribal children through ICWA authorization and Tribal court mandates require continuous intervention and follow-up by tribal employees.