Trump administration puts brakes on Indian Country in Alaska

Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has applied to federal government to place its Andrew Hope Building in downtown Juneau into a federal trust making it exempt from local and state jurisdictions. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The Trump administration reopened a decades-long fight over whether tribes in Alaska can create sovereign areas.

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Native American tribes are able to put land into trust with the federal government. The property then gains special status: it’s not subject to most local and state laws and it’s not taxed either.

Such lands are included in the legal classification of Indian Country.

For decades, Department of Interior cited the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 — the law that set up regional Native corporations — as the reason Alaska tribes weren’t able to put land into trust.

But most of the more than 200 tribal organizations in Alaska weren’t part of the deal.

“We did not receive land from the federal government so we’re kind of at a loss to our aboriginal land claims,” Ivan Encelewski, executive director of Ninilchik Traditional Council said. The council oversees tribal affairs for the 900-member Ninilchik Village Tribe.

The council received a federal grant about a year ago to run a public bus service on the Kenai Peninsula.

“We do a static bus route basically running from Ninilchik down to Homer and up to Soldotna and Kenai,” Encelewski said.

The tribe decided to put its bus garage into trust, which would exempt property from local and state taxes and potentially unlock further federal money.

“It just simply made a lot of sense,” Encelewski said. “This is a piece of property that would work well and be well-suited for the land-into-trust application.”

The tribe had reason to be optimistic.

After years of litigation the Bureau of Indian Affairs began accepting lands-into-trust applications from Alaska tribes in 2014.

Three years later the Craig Tribal Association on Prince of Wales Island made history by becoming the first – and so far only – one to be successful.

That was in January 2017.

A week later, President Donald Trump was inaugurated, which meant new appointees running the Department of Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Tribes were notified in June the rule was being withdrawn, pending further review.

Anchorage attorney Lloyd Miller helped sue the Department of Interior that eventually opened the way for Alaska’s tribes to put lands into trust. He’s disappointed it didn’t last.

“The White House has made it clear that anything associated with President Obama is to be questioned and presumptively reversed,” Miller said. “The White House has taken that to heart, the agencies have taken it to heart and this is certainly part of that directive.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs released a list of trust applications from tribes, but did not otherwise respond to requests for comment.

Where Gov. Bill Walker’s administration stands is unclear. It has fallen in line with previous administrations in opposing Alaska tribes from establishing sovereign trust lands.

Alaska Native leaders that advise Walker recently met over the federal government’s sudden U-turn.

Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council Chairwoman Melissa Borton said the feeling among the group is that when it comes to putting lands into trust, the so-called “Alaska exception” is unfair.

“If tribes feel the need and see the importance in putting that land into trust, then they should have that opportunity just like every other tribe in the nation has,” Borton said. “We should not be treated differently than the Lower 48 tribes.”

Alaska Native tribes have invested thousands of dollars in their applications in the meantime.

“There’s a lot of time that goes into these applications,” Encelewski said, “It’s definitely frustrating to see something potentially hold that up right at the end.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs sent a July 2 letter to tribal leaders saying it would hold consultations with Alaska tribes and take public comment over the issue.