The state of Alaska has formally asked a federal judge to decide whether the Bureau of Indian Affairs may create the equivalent of reservations in Alaska on behalf of Alaska Native tribes.
On Tuesday, the state of Alaska filed for summary judgment in an ongoing lawsuit against the federal government and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
Under a briefing schedule published earlier this year, the state, Tlingit and Haida, and the federal government will trade written arguments through Jan. 10, whereupon the case will be considered by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason.
At issue is a 787-square-foot parcel of land in downtown Juneau that the Bureau of Indian Affairs took into federal trust on behalf of Tlingit and Haida earlier this year.
On trust parcels, tribal governments — rather than the state — generally have legal jurisdiction over what’s known in federal law as “Indian country.”
“Whether (the Department of the Interior) has the authority to shift the balance of territorial jurisdiction in Alaska by creating Indian country presents a significant political question,” state attorneys wrote.
The state is arguing that the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act prohibits the federal government from creating new trust land in Alaska. That act awarded land to Alaska Native corporations, not tribes, extinguishing Indian country in the state with the exception of the Metlakatla Indian Community’s Annette Island Reserve.
The federal government disagrees with the state’s assessment, and Tlingit and Haida has filed to intervene in the case on the side of the federal government.
The land in question is small, but the state noted in this week’s request for summary judgment that a ruling could have broad implications.
“There are currently 227 federally recognized tribes in Alaska; that is potentially 227 different sovereigns exercising territorial jurisdiction in the state,” state attorneys wrote.
Tribes in Ninilchik and Fort Yukon have already submitted land-into-trust requests, and Tlingit and Haida has submitted additional requests for other land in downtown Juneau.
• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.