June 29, 1997

What is Indian country?

By Daily News staff

Indian country is land under the jurisdiction of a federally recognized tribal government. In Alaska, 226 village-based tribes were recognized by the federal government in 1993. The Supreme Court must decide whether any of those self-governing tribes can have jurisdiction over land.

Federal law defines three kinds of Indian country: reservation land held in trust by the federal government, individual Native allotments, and territory qualifying as "dependent Indian communities." The 9th Circuit concluded that Indian country exists in Alaska because the village of Venetie -- and perhaps other villages -- qualifies as a dependent Indian community.

Congress and the Supreme Court have never precisely defined a dependent Indian community. In general, the land considered as Indian country must have been "set apart for the use of the Indians as such" and the tribe must be under the "superintendence" of the federal government.

Tests for determining Indian country differ from one appeals court circuit to another. The 9th Circuit developed a test in the Venetie decision relying on six factors:

Land awarded to a village Native corporation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act could in some cases meet this test for Indian country and be subject to tribal jurisdiction, the 9th Circuit concluded.

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