Youth from the Craig Tribal Association in Alaska participate in a celebration on Elizabeth Petrovich Day. Elizabeth Petrovich was a Tlingit activist. Photo: Craig Tribal Association

Alaska tribe makes history with approval of trust land application

With less than a week left in the Obama administration, the very first tribal land-into-trust application in Alaska has been approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The acquisition only covers a 1.08-acre site but it marks a major milestone in state and federal history. Up until a few months ago, tribes in Alaska weren't even able to follow the land-into-trust process.

“The journey to this decision has been a long one. Today, the federally recognized tribes in Alaska have the same opportunity as those in the Lower 48 states to maintain a permanent homeland for themselves,” Larry Roberts, the de facto leader of the BIA, said in a press release on Friday.

The Craig Tribal Association submitted the application last October. The 1.08-acre property includes a building in the city of Craig that houses tribal headquarters, a community hall, a Head Start, a business and other programs that provide services to tribal citizens.

"I congratulate the Craig Tribal Association leadership on their achievement. I also commend the state of Alaska and the city of Craig for their comments on the land-into-trust application," Roberts said. "Their approach, much like other state and local governments, is another important example of tribes, states and local governments working together in a government-to-government relationship to address concerns so that they may better serves their collective communities.”

Even though BIA only took three months to review and approve the application, getting to that point was difficult. For decades, the agency believed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 barred the acquisition of tribal lands in the state.

A lawsuit finally forced the BIA to remove the so-called "Alaska exception" from its regulations. A A new rule was finalized in December 2014, opening the door for applications in the state.

The fight wasn't over though due to a legal challenge from the state of Alaska. But after a federal appeals court sided with the BIA last July, the state finally dropped the lawsuit.

That doesn't mean the state, like any other party, can't challenge applications that are approved by the BIA. But top officials, led by Gov. Bill Walker (I) and Lt. Governor Byron Mallott (D), who is Native, have sought to develop a new relationship with the first Alaskans on a wide range of issues.

Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the BIA has placed a priority on restoring tribal lands. More than 500,000 acres have been acquired through the agency's administrative process and through acts of Congress.

The equivalent of another 1.8 million acres has been restored to tribal ownership through the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, a component of the Cobell settlement that was negotiated by the Obama administration.

"This administration should be proud of the historic progress made to restore tribal homelands and strengthen tribal economies," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in an exit memo released by the White House last week.

Republican president-elect Donald Trump, who takes office on January 20, has not said anything about Indian Country since his historic victory last November. But Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana), his nominee to lead the Interior Department, has a favorable record on tribal issues and has promoted tribal self-determination through various bills.

Zinke, who is an adopted member of the Fort Peck Tribes in Montana, will go before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for his confirmation hearing on January 17 hearing.

A notice of the acquisition for the Craig Tribal Association is being published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Forthcoming Federal Register Notice:
Land Acquisitions; Craig Tribal Association, Craig, Alaska (To Be Published January 17, 2017)

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Akiachak Native Community v. Department of the Interior (July 1, 2016)

Federal Register Notices:
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (December 23, 2014)
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (July 1, 2014)
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (May 1, 2014)

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)

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