US House bill clears path for Alaska tribes to put land in trust

Photo of U.S. Capitol by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media

The U.S. House on Wednesday passed a bill that would clear a legal cloud over whether Alaska tribes can put land in trust, giving them the authority to govern over that land.

The bill, H.R. 375, says the U.S. Interior secretary can take land in trust for any tribe the federal government recognizes, and the bill specifically includes Alaska Native tribes. The House passed it by a vote of 323-96.

“Where that happens in Alaska, I think they should have exactly the same protections that we’re proposing for all tribes,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

When the Interior Department accepts a tribe’s land in trust, the land falls under tribal government authority, as though it’s a reservation. Many Alaska tribes see placing land in trust as an opportunity to impose law-and-order in their communities, and as a path to new kinds of economic development.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla, says Alaska tribes should have the same right as any other tribe to put land in trust. (Image from House Rules Committee video)

Opponents say states lose when tribes put land in trust. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., sees it as a route to more Indian gaming.

“H.R. 375 will result in a flood of new off-reservation casinos that cause harm to state and local communities,” Gosar argued on the House floor.

Until the Obama administration, Alaska tribes weren’t allowed to put land in trust, on the theory that it wasn’t allowed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. State Attorney General Kevin Clarkson holds that view. The Trump administration is reconsidering the question.

Alaska Congressman Don Young voted in favor of H.R. 375.

“As it stands, the Federal government can already place land into trust, and Congressman Young supports the secretary of the Interior’s existing authority to place land into trust for tribes,” his spokesman said in an email.

A spokesman for Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the governor does not have a position on the bill.

H.R. 375 goes next to the U.S. Senate.