State continues lawsuit against putting tribal land in federal trust

The state has formally asked a federal judge to decide whether the Bureau of Indian Affairs may create the legal equivalent of reservation land in Alaska on behalf of Native tribes.

On Aug. 1, the state filed for summary judgment in its ongoing lawsuit against the federal government and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

The lawsuit involves a small downtown lot in Juneau. So far, only two tribes in Alaska have placed land into trust with the BIA — in Craig in 2017 and in Juneau this year — after the federal government in 2014 began reversing a decades-old ban against the practice in the state.

Under a briefing schedule published earlier this year, the state, Tlingit and Haida, and the federal government will trade written arguments through Jan. 10, whereupon the case will be considered by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason.

At issue is a 787-square-foot vacant parcel in Juneau that the BIA took into federal trust on behalf of Tlingit and Haida. On trust parcels, tribal governments — rather than the state — generally have legal jurisdiction over what’s known in federal law as “Indian country.”

“Whether (the Department of the Interior) has the authority to shift the balance of territorial jurisdiction in Alaska by creating Indian country presents a significant political question,” state attorneys wrote.

The state is arguing that the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act prohibits the federal government from creating new trust land in Alaska. That act awarded land to Alaska Native corporations, not tribes, extinguishing Indian country in the state with the exception of the Metlakatla Indian Community’s Annette Island Reserve.

The federal government disagrees with the state’s assessment, and Tlingit and Haida has filed to intervene in the case on the side of the federal government.

The land in question is small, but the state noted in its request for summary judgment that a ruling could have broad implications.

“There are currently 227 federally recognized tribes in Alaska; that is potentially 227 different sovereigns exercising territorial jurisdiction in the state,” state attorneys wrote.

Tribes in Ninilchik and Fort Yukon have already submitted land-into-trust requests, and Tlingit and Haida has submitted additional requests for other land in downtown Juneau.

The state argues that land in trust threatens its authority. Trust lands, often referred to as Indian country, are governed by tribes and generally are not subject to state laws.

Tribes say the status gives them more power over their own affairs, such as employing tribal police who can supplement the state’s limited law-enforcement presence in rural areas. It opens the door to federal programs and services, including opportunities to enhance housing aid, energy development and environmental protections.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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