June 29, 1997

What Indian Country could mean for Alaskans

By Tom Kizzia
Daily News reporter

The din of claims and counter-claims makes it hard to sort out what Indian country would mean for Alaska.

When the state's lawyers warned that tribal jurisdiction could eventually extend to all 44 million acres of regional and village Native corporation land in the state, they were engaging in legal hyperbole.

Technically, it's possible -- if federal courts decide to tear up past decisions and go much farther than even the far-reaching 9th Circuit decision in the Venetie case. Much more likely is that Indian country will extend to some portion of the 22 million acres of village corporation land. Maybe only Venetie and a few other remote villages will qualify under the 9th Circuit's test.

On the other side, when Native rights lawyers note that tribal councils and courts are subject to the Indian Civil Rights Act, they seldom add that the Supreme Court has left enforcement of most rights to the tribes themselves, with limited federal court oversight.

Tribal advocates point to national studies that have found most tribal governments in the Lower 48 are scrupulous about due process and civil rights. Indian country opponents point to the exceptions when they suggest tribal courts will not be a fair forum for hearing grievances.

Direct parallels to Indian reservations in the Lower 48 often don't apply. Tribal powers here will be constrained by Alaska-specific federal laws. For instance, Native-owned lands can be taxed under some circumstances, and the state has been given all criminal jurisdiction in Indian country.

Even so, it's clear that life in Alaska would change in many ways if the Venetie decision is upheld and other villages qualify for Indian country. Among the examples:

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