An Interior Department’s decision last month to rescind an Obama-administration rule that allowed Alaska Natives to put land into federal trust has disappointed some Native rights leaders.
Matt Newman, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, said Monday that the land-into-trust program was designed to “provide a land base for tribes.”
Carole Goldberg, a retired law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and one of nine members of the bipartisan Indian Law & Order Commission, said the Interior Department decision was a retreat from rules that would have increased safety and justice in Alaska villages by increasing the power of tribal police and courts. She said the land-in-trust rule would have promoted “Indian Country” in Alaska.
“If you don’t have ‘Indian Country,’ you don’t have authority,” she said.
Alaska has 229 federally recognized tribes, many of them small villages in the Interior or the western part of the state. The Bureau of Indian Affairs describes the program as “one of the most important functions Interior undertakes on behalf of the tribes.” Putting land into trust would protect its ownership indefinitely, preventing it from being seized in a bankruptcy or being assessed for taxes.
The BIA says on its website, “Acquisition of land in trust is essential to tribal self-determination. Tribes are sovereign governments and trust lands are a primary locus of tribal authority. Indeed, many federal programs and services are available only on reservations or trust lands.”
But prior to a federal judge’s decision in Washington, D.C., only Lower 48 Indians and the members of the one Alaska reservation, Metlakatla in Southeast, were able to put land into trust.
However, the tribal community of Akiachak, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Southwest Alaska, sued, asserting the Interior Department was being discriminatory. But the Interior — and the state of Alaska — argued that Congress had already decided Alaska was different, especially as a result of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that paved the way for the trans-Alaska pipeline.
The Akiachak tribe, though, represented by the Native American Rights Fund and Alaska Legal Services Corp., prevailed in 2013, winning the lawsuit. Newman, one of the NARF attorneys, said the Obama administration was no friend of the Alaska Natives — it only agreed to rewrite the rules after losing the case, he said.
The Interior Department says it will listen to public comment before deciding how it will proceed. It notified Alaska tribal leaders and Native corporation chief executives of its ruling and invited them to comment at public meetings around the state, including Anchorage, till December.
Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said she was hopeful that come the new year, the Interior Department would resume putting Alaska land into trust, even if the procedures changed. Newman said the Akiachak tribal leaders intend to watch the government rule making “very carefully.”
“This case was six years of heavy litigation between the tribes, the state of Alaska and the Department of the Interior,” Newman said. “It’s hard for the tribes to sit here and watch the current administration say we’re trying to roll back Obama radicalism or federal overreach — hell, the federal government under Obama opposed the tribes.”
Only one community put land into trust before the Interior Department ruling — the tribal organization in Craig. It designated an acre used by a daycare center and a tribal office.
“For all the huff and puff about how this would change Alaska, it’s actually the least eyebrow raising you could imagine: a daycare center and a tribal office,” Newman said.
Ninilchik Natives applied to put land into trust that was under a bus barn, but didn’t beat the ruling.
Kitka said she found it unfortunate that the decision was announced before an Alaskan, Tara Sweeney, took her job as assistant Interior secretary for Indian affairs and had a chance to be heard inside the agency.
The appointment of another Alaskan, Buzz Peltola, as BIA Alaska Regional director, was announced last week. A spokeswoman at the BIA in Anchorage said Peltola couldn’t comment on the ruling.