Governor Walker is continuing the state’s appeal of a case that clears a path for Alaska tribes to put land into trust. Lawyers for the state filed an opening brief late Monday to appeal a ruling that overturns the so-called “Alaska exemption.”
Trust status would reshape tribal sovereignty by creating Indian country in Alaska. Tribes would enjoy broad jurisdictional power in a status likened to reservations. It also limits the power of the state. Under new rules developed by the Department of the Interior, tribes could put lands they own into trust, including land they’ve purchased or lands transferred to tribes by Native Corporations.
Walker has faced pressure from tribes to drop the lawsuit he inherited from the Parnell administration. He delayed action for seven months, but recently fly around the state to meet face-to-face with tribal leaders in the five communities involved in the suit: Akiachak, Tuluksak, Chalkyitsik, Barrow, and Haines.
The state argues that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act specifically prohibits the creation of trust land in Alaska and that the court incorrectly interpreted earlier laws in the 2013 ruling.
After a court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs two years ago, the Department of the Interior announced new rules in 2014 to allow tribes to put land into trust. Alaska Native leaders say that change, after years of litigation, brings them one step closer to self-determination. The state currently has one reservation for the Metlakatla tribe.
While Attorney General Craig Richards stated in a press release that the state’s position continues to develop with tribes, “a change of that magnitude requires thorough and deliberative dialogue that can’t occur in just a matter of months.”
Lawyers for the tribes are due to respond by September 23rd in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.