Court Says Feds Can Take Land Into Trust For Alaska Native Tribes

A decision this week from the U.S. District court for the District of Columbia has big implications for Alaska tribes. In the case of Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar, the court affirmed the ability of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for Alaska tribes. The ruling also states that Alaska tribes have the right to be treated the same as all other federally recognized tribes.

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The suit was brought in 2006 by four tribes, the Akiachak Native Community, Chalkyitsik Village, the Tukuksak Native Community, the Chilkoot Indian Association and one Native person, Alice Kavairlook. They challenged the Interior Secretary’s decision to leave a regulation in place that treats Alaska Natives differently than other Native peoples.

David Barry is the tribal administrator for the Chilkoot Indian Association of Haines. The community of 500 members is located about 90 miles north of Juneau. He says the decision gives tribes the ability to engage in economic development on their lands.

“Most tribes don’t have a land base and what land they do have is fee simple, so this would protect our property by putting it in trust.” Barry said.

Barry says this isn’t a move toward reservations but allows them to protect their land and the office and housing buildings on it, from taxation and seizure. He says there is still a lot that needs to be understood about how the decision will impact tribes, but he says the tribal council is happy.

“We’ve been fighting since 94 to have this petition heard and finally reach a decision, so we were actually shocked when we won,” Barry said.

Barry says he is waiting on clarification from Native American Rights Fund Attorney Heather Kendall Miller about the details. Kendall Miller was not available to discuss the decision today. The Attorney General’s office in Alaska did not return calls seeking reaction to the decision. In a release NARF states the decision allows Alaska Tribes to petition the secretary to take non-ANCSA lands into trust and gives those tribes the ability to regulate alcohol, respond to domestic violence and generally protect the health and safety of tribal members.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 18 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications with veteran Alaskan broadcasters Nellie Moore, D’Anne Hamilton, Len Anderson, Sharon McConnell and Veronica Iya. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori