Law | Opinion | Trust

Sarah Deer: Ending the cold war over land-into-trust in Alaska

A view of the Akiachak Native Community, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that prompted the Obama administration to include Alaska tribes in the land-into-trust process. Photo from Calista Corporation

Law professor Sarah Deer and Judge David Voluck call on Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) to drop an appeal in Akiachak Native Community v. Department of Interior, a land-into-trust case:
Alaska Native tribal governments are heeding the call of their generation, mobilizing a first response to community crisis with the exercise of tribal laws sourced in the inherent traditions of respect and family health. Tribal governments are emphasizing early intervention and remedies crafted to treat not only the presenting symptoms of the day, but also the historical root causes for the trauma tearing at family and community.

Despite encouraging signs of thaw, tribal first response remains burdened by Alaska’s political and legal opposition to tribal self-government. As triage clinicians on the front lines, it is difficult to watch the waste and damage caused by this brief-case ‘Indian war’. At present, we are watching the state of Alaska’s continued appeal of the Akiachak land into trust decision.

“Land into trust” is a regulatory process providing tribal governments the ability to petition the secretary of the interior to have their lands placed under federal ownership with powerful trust protections. Land into trust is a central portion of the Indian Reorganization Act, a law passed with the goals of reviving tribal governments and partial restoration of the immense tribal land base lost during the United States’ westward expansion. Native American tribes throughout the nation may use the land into trust function to rebuild governmental authority over their ancestral lands. As is often the case in contemporary Indian law, Alaska’s tribal governments were singled out to be excluded administratively from this function and purpose of the Indian Reorganization Act.

The Native Village of Akiachak joined other tribal plaintiffs in challenging this “Alaska exclusion rule” as illegal and discriminatory. The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., recently agreed with the tribal plaintiffs, and struck down the Department of the Interior’s exclusion of Alaska as disparate and illegal treatment of Alaska Native tribes. Following an internal review of the Federal Court’s decision and the Alaska exclusion rule, the United States decided against appeal, instead using its energy to publish regulations allowing Alaska Native tribal governments to self-determine whether to apply for federal trust protection, in common with Native American tribes throughout the Nation.

Get the Story:
Sarah Deer and David Voluck: End the cold war on trust lands (The Juneau Empire 8/3)

Relevant Documents:
Dear Tribal Leader Letter from Kevin Washburn (April 30, 2014)

District Court Decisions:
Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell (September 30, 2013)
Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar (March 31, 2013)

Federal Register Notice:
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (December 23, 2014)

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