Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Department of the Interior proposes regulations to make trust land acquisitions for Alaska Natives

Native American Rights Fund (NARF) logo
The Department of the Interior issued a proposed regulation today authorizing petitions for lands to be taken into trust status on behalf of Alaska Native Tribes and individuals.  Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, announced the long standing regulatory prohibition on Alaska petitions would come to an end.  The proposed regulation comes nearly one-year after the historic court victory for Alaska Native Tribes in Akiachak Native Community, et al. v. Salazar, which affirmed the ability of the Secretary of Interior to take land into trust on behalf of Alaska Tribes and also acknowledged 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 challenging 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 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 barred 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).  The District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with Plaintiffs on all counts. 

Today’s announcement from the Department of the Interior, along with the District Court’s ruling last year, will allow Alaska Tribes to begin petitioning the Secretary to have their tribally-owned fee lands placed into trust status.  With such status, Alaska’s Tribal governments will have the opportunity to enhance their ability to regulate alcohol and generally protect the health, safety, and welfare of tribal members. 

For more information, please contact Heather Kendall Miller or Matthew N. Newman in NARF’s Alaska office at (907) 276-0680.