ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Some western Alaska Natives can again travel back and forth to Russia's Chukota region without a visa under a decades-old agreement that was recently revived.
Vera Metcalf, a Native leader in Nome who works part time with the State Department, said Friday that the program allows indigenous residents from both sides of the Bering Strait to visit for up to 90 days without a visa. Travelers must have documented invitations from family or other residents living on the other side.
A passport also is still required.
Alaska and Chukotka Natives have historically been linked culturally and traditionally to the Chukotka region, and many still have relatives there — including Metcalf, who was born and raised in the Yup'ik Eskimo village of Savoonga about 60 miles southeast of the Russian border.
"I'm excited about it," Metcalf said of the program starting up again. "It's a great opportunity to allow us to visit relatives and family."
Administrative issues forced those Alaska Natives to get a visa over the past three years. Metcalf declined to elaborate, but said the issues were resolved, allowing the program to resume in mid-July.
Those on the Russian side haven't needed a visa under the program, which stems from a pact that was originally signed in 1989 by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
However, Alaska Natives were excluded in the past few years. For example, when about 25 Alaska Natives traveled to a cultural conference in Anadyr in 2013, it took months to get their paperwork done, according to Janis Kozlowski, manager of the National Park Service's Shared Beringian Heritage Program, which oversees projects highlighting traditions and natural resources shared by communities on both sides of the Bering Strait.
"It's a long, difficult process without visa-free," Kozlowski said. Not requiring qualifying Alaska Natives to obtain visas also means they can travel more economically, she said.
A State Department official said the designated checkpoints under the 1989 agreement are Nome and Gambell on the U.S. side, and in Russia, at Provideniya, Anadyr, Uelen and Lavrentiya. But in practice, Nome, Provideniya and Anadyr are used, according to the official.
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