Tribal trust lands are no threat to Alaska sovereignty

As a child I lived in terror of the Boogie Man. The Boogie Man was a monster in my imagination who victimized children by frightening them into good behavior. If we misbehaved, we feared the Boogie Man would "get us." Over time, I learned this monster does not exist; he was just a fear based on misplaced and uninformed fiction.

It is now the state of Alaska's turn to realize there is no Boogie Man in tribal trust land. It's time to let go of this misplaced, uninformed and oppositional fear.

To put it politely, Thursday's commentary by Suzanne Downing, the communications director for the Alaska Republican Party -- is truth-challenged. Ms. Downing is wrong on count after count.

First, what's at stake is not "millions of acres." A tribe may ask to have land placed in trust only if the tribe owns the land outright. It is sheer lunacy to think ANCSA corporations will sell off their land holdings to tribes. Tribes in Alaska have nowhere near enough money to buy thousands of acres, much less "millions."

Second, land in trust would not "create a new era of international relations." This is crazy talk. It is well-settled federal Indian law that tribes are domestic dependent sovereigns. We tribes chafe at that limitation, but it is a hard, legal fact.

Third, Indians in Indian Country do not avoid many taxes, including school bonds. The wrecking ball Ms. Downing describes is a fiction that has never devastated the millions of acres of tribal trust land in the Lower 48 states.

Fourth, trust land does not mean "all zoning, fishing, hunting, licensing, environmental law and law enforcement (are) no longer a state matter." Rather than Ms. Downing's scary "islands of sovereignty pop(ping) up around the state," federal public law 83-280 imposes state law concurrently on Indian Country statewide, including in Alaska.


Finally, Ms. Downing gives voice to yet another cruel irony from a party that has always highly valued private property rights. In a fit that would make Karl Marx chuckle, she argues that putting our private property into trust will block her fellow Bolsheviks from trampling across it to look at birds. It is as if she thinks tribes are not worthy of holding private property. Her attitude has a historically familiar ring to it.

Alaska's sovereignty, just like my tribe's sovereignty, is limited by the U.S. Constitution, which Gov. Bill Walker swore in his oath of office to support and defend. Ms. Downing is communicating the wrong message for the Alaska Republican Party.

Tribal land is at the core of our Native cultures. It is the basis for our subsistence lifestyles, our way of life, and our livelihood. It is the key that opens the door to federal funding and investment that enables tribes to pursue tax-advantaged economic development. Tribal land helps secure our tribal future.

Back in 1934, the U.S. Congress, with regret at the land loss it had approved or tolerated for decades, authorized the secretary of the Interior to accept land back into trust for Indian individuals and tribes. Placing that tribal land in trust, with its legal title held in perpetuity by the U.S. and beneficial title in the current and future generations of tribal citizens, is one way to recover and protect some lost tribal land.

Tribal trust land is not the only answer, but if tribes are to recover, tribal trust land must be one of the tools in our toolbox. For decades, the Department of Interior held unclean hands with the state of Alaska to make tribes in Alaska the exception to the federal rule accepting tribal land in trust. Finally, a judge ruled two years ago that it is illegal to treat tribes in Alaska differently from tribes in the rest of the U.S. and that no statute allowed the Department of Interior to discriminate against us.

To its credit, the Department of Interior read the court's opinion, dropped its fight, and issued a new regulation restoring the right to accept land in trust for Alaska tribes. However, the state of Alaska has continued to intervene and fight against tribal trust land authority as if the survival of the planet depends upon it. It is time for the state of Alaska to recognize there is nothing to fear in tribal trust land. I have called upon Gov. Bill Walker to boot the Boogie Man and drop the state's appeal in Akiachak Native Community v. Department of the Interior before the end of August.

Dozens of states south of the 48th parallel have survived and thrived with tribal trust land within their borders. In fact, tribal trust land can create a win-win situation for both tribes and neighbors. With proper management, it invites economic development activity, as well as federal and private-sector investment, which has been overlooked in Alaska for far too long. One example is the $2 billion in tribal economic development bonds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 which would have been of great value to our Alaska economy, but could not be accessed by Alaska tribes due to our lack of tribal trust land.

Just imagine the jobs some of that $2 billion could have created in Alaska if tribes had a few strategically located parcels in trust they could develop, with tax, finance and regulatory advantages, in partnership with their sister Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporations. Given our state's economic challenges, shouldn't we work together to use all available tools?

There are many misconceptions about the tribal trust land process. The truth is, it does not involve eminent domain in any way. Instead, the U.S. accepts land into trust only at the request of an Indian tribe or individual who owns the land. The trust application process is a lengthy one in which the federal government seeks the comments of a tribe's neighbors before making a final decision. And finally, as is routinely done in Oklahoma, split estates of land (surface or subsurface rights) can be taken into trust for tribes while protecting the property rights of the other owners.

Gov. Walker, tribal trust land authority poses nothing the state of Alaska should fear. Tribal acquisitions of land in trust should be welcomed -- it is good for everyone.

Richard Peterson is president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a federally recognized Indian tribal government headquartered in Juneau.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

Richard Peterson

Richard Peterson is president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a federally recognized Indian tribal government headquartered in Juneau.