Alaska Native communities have a bit more control over their land thanks to a July 1 ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that affirms their ability to place lands into federal trust, just as other tribes can, in what Alaska tribes are calling a landmark ruling.
More than land rights, the ruling enables Alaska Native governments to regulate alcohol, enforce criminal statutes and take other measures to protect members’ health and safety.
The court decision reverses a regulation that had barred Alaska Native tribes from putting Native land into trust, based on tenets of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Under that law, Alaska Natives were granted 44 million acres, and $952.5 million went to Native corporations, according to Alaska Dispatch News. Aside from some tribes in southeastern Alaska, Native communities in that state were excluded from the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the legal mechanism by which the federal government could accept Native American lands into trust or create new reservations, the Fairbanks News Miner explained.
When lands are put into trust, the federal government takes co-ownership, the News Miner said, which gives tribes access to funding from the BIA for economic development and transportation. They also gain more jurisdiction, as well as funding, for law enforcement, especially in criminal cases, the News Minersaid. Such backing is sorely absent in rural Alaska, especially in Native villages.
In 2006, four tribes and an individual challenged the exclusion in court, saying that the Reorganization Act should apply to all Natives, not just Lower-48 tribes and those in the southeastern portion of the state, according to the Native American Law Fund (NARF), a nonprofit law firm that takes on rights cases of Indian tribes, organizations and individuals. The entities—the Akiachak Native Community, Chalkyitsik Village, Chilkoot Indian Association, Tuluksak Native Community (IRA), and Alice Kavairlook—sued the Interior Department to operate under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act rather than the Indian Reorganization Act. They argued, simply, that all Native peoples should be treated the same. The State of Alaska, however, begged to differ.
“Plaintiffs argued that this exclusion of Alaska Natives—and only Alaska Natives—from the land into trust application process was void under 25 U.S.C. § 476(g), which nullifies regulations that discriminate among Indian tribes,” NARF said. “The State of Alaska intervened to argue that the differential treatment is required by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).”
The U.S. Department of the Interior proposed a new rule erasing the trust exclusion in May 2014, but the State of Alaska stepped in to stop them, loathe to let the feds designate any trust lands. Thus implementation of the rule was suspended while the court case was decided. The July 1 court ruling said that Alaska’s appeal of the case “was moot because the Interior Department had already done away with the regulation Native groups were challenging,” Alaska Dispatch News said.
With this decision, Alaska tribes can “begin petitioning the Secretary of Interior to have their tribally-owned fee lands placed into trust status,” NARF said. “With such status, Alaska’s tribal governments will have the opportunity to enhance their ability to regulate alcohol and generally protect the health, safety, and welfare of tribal members.”
Thus the ruling goes beyond its immediate benefit to the plaintiffs, NARF Staff Attorney Heather Kendall Miller said in the statement.
“Today’s decision is an important victory for all Alaska Tribes,” Kendall Miller said. “Nearly a year ago the State of Alaska decided to appeal this case and continue its fight to treat Alaska Tribes differently than Tribes in the rest of the country. We sincerely hope that fight ends today.”