In another victory for tribal rights in Alaska, the U.S. Interior Department has issued a new rule that will allow it to take land into trust for Alaska Native tribes and individuals with Native allotments, a move that will help secure the lands for new opportunities including housing, schools and economic development, the Obama administration said.
Such an opportunity has been allowed for Lower 48 tribes but not for more than 200 tribal organizations in Alaska, leading to lawsuits from Alaska tribes that the exemption was unjust.
The rule addresses the litigation and will complement a recent congressional action allowing tribal courts in Alaska, like their counterparts in the Lower 48, to prosecute non-Natives who commit domestic violence against Native spouses and partners, said a statement from the department.
"If land is taken into trust pursuant to today's rule, it will support such tribal court jurisdiction authorized by Congress and, ultimately, help Native governments to be better partners with the State of Alaska to address these problems," the statement said.
Heather Kendall-Miller, the lead attorney in the litigation with the Alaska office of the Native American Rights Fund, said many tribes across the state have been granted parcels of land from individuals, village corporations, or other organizations for a variety of reasons.
NARF sued the federal government over the issue in 2006 on behalf of the Akiachak Native Community, Chalkyitsik Village, the Chilkoot Indian Association, the Tuluksak Native Community, and one individual, Alice Kavairlook. NARF worked with Alaska Legal Services in the case.
As an example of the way that land-in-trust could collectively benefit tribes, Kendall-Miller said the Moravian Church had given the Chilkat Indian Association a sizable parcel of land in the middle of Haines that could be used to capitalize on that community's busy tourism season.
Trust lands also allow tribes to benefit from federal grants, such as for housing programs, the release from Interior said.
The state had intervened in the case and earlier this year chose to appeal a court decision that paved the way for the new rule, according to Kendall-Miller. The federal government, however, did not appeal.
The state argued that the distinction is required under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, but the District Court for the District of Columbia rejected that position, according to a press release from NARF.
State attorneys could not be reached late Thursday.
Kendall-Miller said the state was required to file an opening brief Thursday but the day before had requested a one-month extension. The state might be reconsidering whether it's wise to continue with the case, she said.
While the state's appeal is pending, the interior secretary can process trust land applications from Alaska but "cannot actually acquire title to such lands until the litigation is concluded," the release from NARF said.