Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Federal court holds Interior Secretary retains authority to make trust land acquisitions for Alaska Natives


On March 31, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an important ruling in Akiachak Native Community, et al. v. Salazar that affirms the ability of the U.S. Secretary of Interior to take land into trust on behalf of Alaska Tribes and also acknowledges the rights of Alaska Tribes to be treated the same as all other federally recognized Tribes.

In 2006, four Tribes and one Native individual—the Akiachak Native Community, Chalkyitsik Village, Chilkoot Indian Association, Tuluksak Native Community (IRA), and Alice Kavairlook—brought suit to challenge the Secretary of the Interior’s decision to leave in place a regulation that treats Alaska Natives differently from other Native peoples.  On behalf of our clients, NARF and co-counsel Alaska Legal Services Corporation sought judicial review of 25 C.F.R. § 151 as it pertains to federally recognized Tribes in Alaska.  This federal regulation governs the procedures used by Indian Tribes and individuals when requesting the Secretary of the Interior to acquire title to land in trust on their behalf.  The regulation bars the acquisition of land in trust in Alaska other than for the Metlakatla Indian Community or its members.  Plaintiffs argued that this exclusion of Alaska Natives—and only Alaska Natives—from the land into trust application process is void under 25 U.S.C. § 476(g), which nullifies regulations that discriminate among Indian Tribes.  The State of Alaska intervened to argue that the differential treatment is required by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

This decision is a victory for all Alaska Tribes.  The ruling will allow Alaska Tribes to petition the Secretary to have non-ANCSA lands placed into trust and the opportunity to enhance their ability to regulate alcohol, respond to domestic violence, and generally protect the health, safety, and welfare of tribal members.  To read the court’s opinion, click here.