The U.S. Department of Interior is asking for public comments on a new policy that will allow it to take land into trust for Alaska Native tribes. Alaska Native leaders say the change, after years of litigation, brings them one step closer to self-determination.
Trust status for tribal land protects it from taxation and alienation – the taking or sale of land – and gives tribes greater jurisdiction. Reservations are trust lands, and are common throughout the lower 48. However the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, or ANCSA, transferred title to land to for-profit regional and village corporations, not to tribes.
Then a Department of Interior associate solicitor issued an opinion in 1978 interpreting ANCSA to mean tribes shouldn’t be allowed to put lands into trust. Now the courts say that’s going to change, due to a lawsuit filed by the villages of Akiachak, Tuluksak, Chelkeysak, and Chilkoot. That’s good news says Moses Peter from Tuluksak, upriver from Bethel.
“Hallelujah! It’s about time. I’ve been praying, praying to the secretary of interior to put the non-ANCSA lands into trust. It’s gonna change the public policy.”
Under the new rules, tribes could put lands they own into trust, including land they’d purchased, received through an inheritance from a church, or lands transferred to tribes by Native Corporations. Mike Williams Sr., from Akiak, says the rule-change could help correct problems created by ANCSA.
“For instance, you know, not managing our own lands as tribes. We don’t have any land according to the claims. And then our hunting and fishing rights were extinguished by that law.”
Trust status basically gives tribes control over laws and management of the land, while restricting the power of the state.
Proponents of the change hope it will improve public safety. The Indian Law and Order Commission recently recommended the prohibition be removed for that very reason. Supporters say it could also enhance tribes’ ability to provide services, promote economic development and exert regulatory authority in their communities. In short, provide an avenue for more local control. Noah Andrew Sr. from Tuluksak says that’s what he wants.
“I’d like it to be within the village council itself, not with the federal trust or state involvement – get it back to our traditional government. We do have established ways of doing things and we’ve exercised them. It has been brought down from generation to generation and we’ve managed to co-manage things and that’s how we’ve succeeded.”
Heather Kendall Miller is the attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who argued the original case of Akiachak v. Salazar on behalf of the four tribes and one individual, which led to the rule change. She is urging people to submit comments telling the Department of the Interior what the rule change would mean to them.
“It’s important for people to understand that this is an opportunity for people to come forward and to discuss with assistant secretary Washburn their unique circumstances and why they believe that given those circumstances they may benefit from having lands taken into trust.”
Still, it’ll be a long process before land transfers can occur. The Department of Interior is accepting comments on the proposed rule change. Then the agency will develop a process for tribes to apply for trust status. Once an application is made, the Department still has the authority to deny the transfer. Albert Kookesh, Chairman of the Board of Sealaska Corporation in Southeast, says he understands tribes are eager for the change:
“So I can understand why the tribes are looking at it and saying to all of their corporations, ‘Let’s do something different? How bout you let us be the land owners. How bout let us be the land operators? How bout let us be the land caretakers?”
Kookesh says his corporation isn’t making plans to transfer lands to tribes but will consider it when the rule change is final.
The state of Alaska (had) intervened in the case in 2008, arguing the rule change would diminish its authority to tax tribal lands and to enforce regulations, and undermine ANCSA, views the court did not uphold. In a written statement, Anne Nelson, the state’s lead attorney on the case says the state believes the rule change is premature because the state is appealing the district court judgment.
People can review the proposed rule change and learn how to submit comments at the Department of Interior website. Comments can be submitted until June 30th.
People can review the proposed rule-change online.
Written comments can e sent via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or via mail to Elizabeth Appel, Office of Regulatory Affairs, 1849 C Street NW, MS 7328-MIB, Washington, DC 20240