In move toward tribal sovereignty in Alaska, BIA proposes allowing land trusts

Alex DeMarban

The Obama administration is moving ahead on a key step toward promoting tribal sovereignty in Alaska -- the removal of rules limiting tribes from taking land into trust.

The move is opposed by the state but supported by Alaska Native tribes that say they want the right to enforce local ordinances, as their Lower 48 counterparts do.

A letter sent to tribal leaders Wednesday by Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, said the agency will publish draft rules calling for removal of the prohibitive language. If the proposed rule is made final, it will allow the Interior Department to take land into trust on behalf of Alaska Native tribes.

Supporters of the idea say it could unequivocally give tribes control over key health and safety issues in rural Alaska, such as regulating alcohol and crime. The state has opposed the move and is appealing a 2013 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Akiachak v. Salazar, that ruled in favor of tribal governments having the right to place their land in trust status, a privilege afforded tribes in the Lower 48 but not in Alaska, said an attorney involved in the case.

The letter from Washburn said the move was driven by the court decision, as well as the recommendations of two panels, including the Indian Law and Order Commission, that sought ways to address violence and crime in Indian Country and Alaska Native villages.

"Today, I am announcing publication of a proposed rule that would remove from our regulations the prohibition of taking land into trust in Alaska," Washburn wrote.

The draft rule is scheduled to be published tomorrow. It will open a 60-day comment period, said Matthew Newman, an attorney who has worked on the case for the Native American Rights Fund office in Alaska.

NARF in 2006 sued the federal government on behalf of four Alaska villages to remove the rule. A statement from NARF said the decision will allow tribes to regulate alcohol and better protect the health and safety of villagers.

Alaska Legal Services also filed a suit -- the courts eventually combined the cases -- on behalf of Alice Kavairlook, a Barrow resident who owned an allotment and wanted it protected in trust status, said Newman.

A statement from Sen. Mark Begich's office said he has long fought for the move. The removal of the rule will bring "Alaska tribes one step closer to tribal self-determination," the statement said.


By Alex DeMarban
Alaska Dispatch