Jenny Bell-Jones: Embrace land-into-trust for Alaska tribes

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

Let tribes in Alaska make decisions regarding the best use of their land by allowing them to participate in the land-into-trust process, professor Jenny Bell-Jones argues:
The need for Alaska’s tribes to be able to place their fee lands into trust to improve governance is huge. Failure to accept the decision and move forward into an era where the state and tribes work together for each other’s benefit will be extremely expensive for the state. The tribes did not bring this suit for frivolous reasons; their needs are very real, and, if the state appeals the Akiachak decision, we can expect to see hundreds of thousands of public dollars spent in a fight against the interests of a significant number of Alaskan citizens. If the financial cost is not sufficient to make the administration think twice about an appeal, then the social costs should help in making that decision.

Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporations are not a substitute for Indian country. Yes, the corporations have, in some cases, been financially successful, but they are not governments. ANCSA corporations are businesses and as such should not be expected to directly fund governance. Businesses fund governance by paying taxes and, because of the current structure in Alaska, the taxes paid by ANCSA corporations to the state are in no way guaranteed to make their way back to the tribal communities. Comparing Native corporations and tribes is like comparing apples and oranges. Dividends paid to shareholders do not fund tribal governance. ANCSA corporation success does not equate to well-funded tribal governments, because there is no mechanism in place for that to happen.

When a tribe governs Indian country, it does not do so in a vacuum. The suggestion that a tribe would be immune from state regulations ignores the reality that all over the Lower 48, states and tribes work together to develop co-management partnerships and cross-deputization agreements that work for all neighbors. Tribes have the same immunities from taxation as other governments. This does not mean tribes do not contribute to state and local coffers; there are many ways they do this. A tribe being able to implement its own taxation system is no different than other governments doing so within their own jurisdictions. Governments implement taxes in amounts that can be collected and promote development; let us not suppose that a tribal government is somehow incapable of making sensible decisions about taxation.

Get the Story:
Jenny Bell-Jones: Governor should support Indian country (The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 8/18)

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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