Rural Alaska

Appeals panel sides with new Newtok council, easing village move

NEWTOK -- A federal appeals panel has sided with the new tribal council in a long-running conflict over who should lead the severely eroded Western Alaska village of Newtok.

The decision by the Interior Board of Indian Appeals was published Friday morning and upholds an earlier decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to recognize the Newtok Village Council, the group that took charge in 2012.

The dispute stalled efforts to move the crumbling village to a new site across the widening Ninglick River, which is gobbling up shoreline and approaching the school.

Both the BIA and the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development had recognized the new council in 2013 as the governing body of the village. But the old group, the Newtok Traditional Council, has not given up control and still occupies the traditional council building in the village. It had appealed the earlier BIA decision.

Newtok, a traditional community of about 400 people where children grow up speaking Yup'ik, is among a small group of Alaska villages threatened by climate-change-accelerated erosion. Threatened by floods, Newtok is farther along in its move effort than other threatened villages. The council is seeking disaster funding to help the move.

Leaders of the new council say they've been moving forward for more than a year on relocation. But the decision published Friday and dated Thursday is a relief, said Tom John, Newtok tribal administrator. He was just absorbing the decision early Friday.

"I just read that," he said. "It's amazing. Am I dreaming? Is this real?"

In the village, Andy Patrick, who had led the Newtok Traditional Council, said he was disappointed but vowed to keep fighting.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.