Law | Trust

Judge concludes Alaska tribes can follow land-into-trust process

Tribes in Alaska can follow the land-into-trust process, a federal judge has determined.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has long excluded Alaska tribes from its land-into-trust regulations. Numerous administrations argued that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 extinguished Indian Country in Alaska and any future claims to Indian Country.

Judge Rudolph Contreras, however, said a land-into-trust application is not a "claim" to land. "If a petition to have Alaska land taken into trust is indeed such a 'claim,' then ANCSA forecloses the Secretary’s authority to grant it," he wrote in a decision dated March 31.

"But, as the plaintiffs argue, petitions to have land taken into trust are not 'claims,' because to grant or deny those petitions is within the discretion of the [Interior] Secretary and a 'claim' is necessarily an assertion of right," Contreras continued.

"The State does not argue with any particular force that petitions to have land taken into trust are “claims” within the usual meaning of that word, and the court concludes that, because they are not, the Secretary’s authority to consider them is unaffected by ANCSA," Contreras concluded

Contreras then determined that the BIA's existing land-into-trust regulations are unlawful because they treat Alaska tribes differently from tribes elsewhere. He cited 25 U.S.C. § 476(g):
Any regulation or administrative decision or determination of a department or agency of the United States that is in existence or effect on May 31, 1994, and that classifies, enhances, or diminishes the privileges and immunities available to a federally recognized Indian tribe relative to the privileges and immunities available to other federally recognized tribes by virtue of their status as Indian tribes shall have no force or effect.

Contreras said the parties will submit briefs to determine how to fix the regulations, a move that could finally lead to the approval of land-into-trust applications in Alaska. But an appeal is likely since the state intervened in the lawsuit.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar.

District Court Decision:
Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar (March 31, 2013)

Related Stories:
Rep. Young won't support Alaska tribes for land-into-trust fix (03/20)

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